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Presented November 29, 2015, by Dr. Sharon Buzzard
Listen to a recording of "The Unseen in Our Lives"
23:41 minutes - 21.7 MB - The Unseen in Our Lives .mp3 file.
The title of my talk has something to do with loving words. The words I especially love are those words for the miniscule in our lives. One of those words is pentimento, not to be confused with the orange cheese pimento, has it root in the Italian, to repent or regret a moment. It applies specifically to art canvases on which the paint has weathered to the degree that you can see what the artist painted then painted over--corrected in a way--- a gesture slightly reframed or reconsidered--an arm a bit higher or a chin tilted down and to the left. Or some extend the definition to a canvas totally reused, a whole new scene painted over what was a very different one. I first heard the word pentimento years ago when I was in my Lillian Hellman phase, wanting to read all I could about the Hollywood red scare, the blacklisting of directors and writers, and, of course, of her long relationship with Dashiell Hammett. She titled her memoir Pentimento, a wonderful title I think whose image suggests the ways the past can show through into the present; seen from life-review perspective the patterns become ever more apparent. So today my goal is to ponder how the unseen, or the imperceptible, adds depth and texture to our lives.
In Hellman's introduction she says, "Old paint on a canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter "repented," changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. That is all I mean about the people in this book. The paint has aged and I wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now."
Steve and I celebrated our 33 wedding anniversary in August. Our 33rd year together found us back in Columbia, MO where we met, fell in love, and got married. Were Columbia itself a canvas, it is rich in pentimento. I can see where streets have reconfigured themselves, storefronts once a grocery, now a Staples, quirky hang-outs characteristic of university towns, now Chipotle, friends from the younger days now painted somewhat older yet somehow as recognizable as ever. To help celebrate our special day, Anna thought it a great idea to post an early photo of us on Facebook, one taken a year or so after we were married. We were, shall I say, "fresher" looking, so it drew quite a few reactions from several of younger friends who I think may have thought that we were never 30 years old. The funny thing is that I am still that person, and I am also several others that you might have to use your special perceptions to see. Can you see the horribly awkward and insecure 16 year old, the dancing queen who frolics with her gay friends in the bars in Columbia, and yes the sweetheart and new bride, and the shell-shocked new mom. I can imagine that each of you has versions of yourself with you too. I supposed that to be true to the idea of pentimento, it does take some aging to be able not to merely see but to welcome these old selves into our lives, and not to also reconstitute the feelings that comes with them. But it's good to keep in touch with the people we used to be, the writer Joan Didion reminds us, otherwise they come knocking on the door at 3AM. I'd really like to have a talk with that 16yr old and also with the new mom. I actually met the dancing queen again in real life a couple of years ago when Steve and I went to Las Vegas with two of those old(er) gay friends who I reconnected with after years apart. We had bonded over Gloria Gaynor and Donna Summer so with tickets to a Disco Review, well, what to do but get up and dance in the aisle. But, as they say, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.
The memoir is a very popular genre as it seems nearly everyone wants to tell his/her life story in order to share the wisdom gained before, well, it is "too late, and also perhaps to achieve the permanence that is said to come with art. One piece of advice I recently read about getting started is to make a list of three or four situations that you still don't understand I expect we all have at least that many; perhaps one in particular that we revisit more than others. There is a knot that if untangled would allow reconciliation, not only with the players in this drama, but with the self where the drama is stored. Fond as we are of seeing our lives chronologically and in linear fashion, one writer describes our life journey saying the path isn't a straight line, it's a spiral. You continually come back to things you thought you understood, to see deeper truths. . As Hellman says, it is a "way of seeing and of seeing again." With the wisdom that has been gained along the way we have an opportunity for a literal re-vision and new insight.
As I ponder the word pentimento and its meaning, I am called to the perceptual illusion called figure/ground. Is this a pretty woman or a witch-like hag. Is this a rabbit or a duck? Well, it's both yet the ways our eyes and minds work we can see one or the other and often it is a really determined effort that is needed to switch your ways of seeing. Once you learn a perceptual pattern you "cannot unsee" what your mind has already learned. Some of these changes in perception are easier than others--the duck and the rabbit are fairly easy switches for most, but for me, the switch from the young woman to the witch takes some real concentration. There's some complex visual psychology-- too much to get into now-- that explains the ways our learning can get stuck on an interpretation of an event and thus cannot "unsee" it, cannot, without some effort, read it differently. Perhaps that is where the benefit of time can help. Thus, Hellman's idea of seeing and seeing again becomes a useful tool for gaining perspective.
Some who are fond of that prefabricated Christian lingo I have spoken of here before--Everything Happens for a Reason, It was Meant to Be, Feeling Blessed, etc.--are good examples of how a particular focus has become fixed. Those who reach first for this language may be also be more disposed to see images of Jesus in a potato chip or in their morning toast than we are because their reasoning influences their perception. The story of Audrey Santo offers an interesting examination a situation that tests our spiritual, perceptual, and intellectual focus. Audrey, in 1987, at age four, drowned in a swimming pool and was by pediatric neurologists considered profoundly "brain dead. " Yet her devoutly catholic mother refused any intervention or institutionalization, choosing to care for Audrey in her home--a ventilator did her breathing, a feeding tube provided nutrition except for the communion wafers she supposedly ingested. Round the clock nursing provided by the Federation for the Blind filled in the gaps. During this time miracles began to happened in the home. Statues wept and moved, the eucharist oozed blood, oil dripped from statues and paintings. The Santo home became a very popular religious site, so much so that on Wednesdays viewings were arranged--a few would gather on one side of a picture window, then the curtain opened for a few minutes so that the pilgrims could see Audrey and pray, receive whatever sustenance they came for, and then the next group would be ushered in. At the end of the tour each pilgrim got a souvenir, a Ziploc bag containing a little cotton swab, daubed in the oil of this holy home.
Several attributed their healing to Audrey's intervention, as she was what her mother called a "victim soul," a person who takes on the suffering of others. Movies have been made about Audrey and her story was featured on both 20/20 and 60 minutes. Thousands have visited the Santo home and are in complete accord that what is happening in the Santo home is of a miraculous nature. It is a home steeped in the language of belief, God, faith and miracles. But there are skeptics too. Not the least of these is the Catholic Church who has attempted to bring some moderation into uncomfortable amount of theater going on in the Santo home. Gene Weingarten, a reporter for the Washington Post was sent to do an investigative piece on Linda Santo and Audrey. I don't have to tell you the challenge of his work. He says that to " spend time in the house at 64 S. Flagg St. and you are likely to be either appalled or inspired. One of two things is going on here: a monstrous fraud that exploits a grievously injured child, or a startling declaration by God Almighty that He exists - is here, right now, in this very place, working miracles. One or the other. No in between." And being in a room full of Doubting Thomas', I expect I know which side many of us would come down on. Weingarten weighs repeatedly the two views he must choose between. Will it be faith or will it be knowledge and more importantly will it be possible for him to allow a perceptual refocusing so that he can see into what's happening in the Santo home? In the end he writes that Linda Santo has "defied conventional wisdom and kept her child alive for 20 years through heroic love. She has stayed strong and resolute in the face of unimaginable tragedy. Her joy and spirit have inspired thousands. She has given solace to the sick and dying." Needing to choose a side in order to end his article, he declares "It's a miracle, says the Washington Post."
But really, is it necessary for him to debunk the power of faith? Or even could he. The original Doubting Thomas, as some of you know, was one of the disciples who refused to believe that Jesus was resurrected without some seeable proof, and so has become a touchstone for knowing only by direct personal experience. I suppose if Missouri were to adopt a patron saint, we could say he was the original "show me" guy. He asked to touch Christ's wounds as confirmation of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection, and Christ allows it. " Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed." (John 20:29) Real faith then depends on what is not seen; indeed that seems to be its strength.
Weingarten weighs what he learns from Audrey to decides that in some ways, religion is like abstract art. "There is beauty and spectacle, but in both cases, one must reach into oneself to find meaning." The very notion of faith requires the shifting perspective that takes us away from the absolute and knowable into a different perceptual place. The Unitarian Universalist allegiance to Truth also employs the words direct experience; this, I think, to distinguish us from the revelation, evangelical ways of knowing, or even knowing because a higher authority has told us so. We also recognize that what's knowable isn't always fixed and permanent. A recent circulated article posted on our UU website "Can Unitarian Universalists Really Believe Anything" considers one of our essentials is believe in an evolving truth, an evolution not only of thought but of moral and ethical understanding. I wonder if perhaps that might include accepting that other ways of seeing have merit. Isn't that the space we slip into when we fall into music or into art?
While we're on the subject of words I love, let me add sanctuary. I love the idea of it, and I love our sanctuary. Our moments inside our sanctuary on Sundays provides a time when we allow our focus to shift onto ideas that include thoughts and feelings not necessarily a part of our functional lives. The living of our daily lives mostly requires us to keep our perspective mostly on the foreground, but there are those times and places when we allow ourselves to let go of the deliberateness, when we allow our focus to blur a bit, I guess you'd say, so the shift back to what or who was once there with us, behind us, takes very little. With our sixth sense, we can see and hear those who could not be with us today. Perhaps it requires some "old paint" to get that perspective. But there is also fresh paint here; ours is a place of growing families, some generations deep, of young people who begin their commitment to their spiritual selves and to the community they live in. We all have the security of sanctuary, a safe space where new and old mingle and evolve. If there is pentimento, what we see is not cause for repentance; rather it is a chance to see and see again, to realize and to value the phenomenal texture that goes into our lives. And into the depth of our ideas. As we depart today, and while we are still in a thanks-giving mode, may we go with gratitude for the depth of perspective that makes us who we are.
Cited: "Tears for Audrey" Gene Weingarten, Washington Post, Sunday, July 19,1998
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.