Two weeks later, I still find myself fascinated by Marina Abramović’s 2010 retrospective, The Artist is Present, in which I found my “Prodigal Son” sermon a few weeks ago. After watching the 3 minute clip of her “reunion” with her ex-partner Ulay, I ordered the documentary of the whole exhibition and her preparation for it. It was a teensy bit disillusioning—apparently she and Ulay had planned for him to come, but what I hadn’t known before was that the two of them, forty years earlier, had done a piece in which they sat and stared at each other for hours on end, which offered a new dimension to her project in general and him sitting with her in particular. Seeing the short scene of the two of them was not less moving, though, having watched them prepare soup together at her country house a few days before. The image remains—hands reached out looking for connection, a moment of desire for another that transcends everything, dissolving into a pure encounter of fully seeing the other, love at the center.
Watching Abramović prepare for the work—of sitting still for eight hours a day for three months—was especially striking while, as a priest, I peer forward into holy week. These days between Palm Sunday and Easter are a singular experience—there’s no “working ahead,” no way to even contemplate Easter before you’ve gone through Good Friday. And by “gone through,” that’s what I mean: you celebrate with palms, you wash feet, you hear the words: “Love one another.” Then, the suffering of the cross, the almost perverse way we prostrate ourselves at the symbol of suffering, trying to merge our own pain with Jesus’ and grasp what it means. Holy Week is always different from year to year, but also always the same: I know Sunday is coming, but I also know there’s still a long way to go before we’re there.
Watching Abramović train the students who would recreate some of her pieces, it’s obvious just how much is demanded of the artist; physically as well as spiritually. The self and the piece merge, but also split each other open. The woman on the wall, practically crucified, can’t just step into the role. There’s more to it than that. Abramovic says that the artist has to be a warrior: unreasonable feats of endurance become a necessary vocation.
Hearing her talk so passionately, I think: that’s the kind of priest I want to be. I learned on sabbatical how dependent I am—both in my self-perception and in my prayer—on doing Sacraments in community. I am a priest—for now, a parish priest—in a particular context—but I’m also a tired mother who crashes on the couch after her kids are finally, finally asleep, and can barely articulate her desire for Indian instead of Chinese for dinner. Sometimes being split open and poured out is a lot less romantic than she makes it sound.
This is how real vocation works, I think—the artist, the priest, the poet, the activist--these endeavors are not optional. Like most sometime-writers, I mope around wishing I’d done more, and only sit down to focus when not writing is the only thing worse than writing. My poor self-esteem over my bad creative habits is not particularly warrior-like.
The genius of Marina Abramović, though, is so much deeper than that—of course we “are” the things we really care about. Watching people actually participate in her work, the most moving part of it was how she offered her gaze, her singular gaze, to each person who came. And in seeing each person, she opened a space for that one to see himself or herself reflected there in its wholeness and integrity. In love.
As best as I can tell, that’s what the work of God is; the imago dei, the image of God in each of us that is so singular and lovely and precious. The mirror reflection of God in us is so eminently worth seeing, even as we live our lives wiping shit all over it. That gaze is also impersonal, showing that we are each loved no more, but crucially no less, than anyone else. Nothing is required of us. You don’t have to sleep on the sidewalk waiting to get in and no security guard will escort you away if you make a false move. It’s always there. It’s who you are, whether you are faithful to your blog or your meditation practice or check your email too often at your kid’s soccer game. Though it would still perhaps be better if you did those things.
So, now, Palm Sunday. As happened last year, this week I also have a funeral to contend with, which also will be fine. All shall be well—I can fear this walk we undertake, from death into life. I can resist it I can do it well or poorly, preach coherent sermons or babble on. The grace, though, for the priest (as well as the artist) is that in front of the altar, all of that comes along, and none of it matters. You can only have feelings “about” the future or the past. You can only inhabit the singular moment.
You can only be
I will be