October 14, 2008

Two Spiritual Journeys Converged

By Achenbaum, Andy Lentz, Brother Robert

Notes along the way. To journey on our own is to have the time and space to uncover ourselves," observes Alister McGrath (1999, p. 9). "To travel with others is to allow them to identify the strengths and weaknesses we manage to hide from ourselves, and be supported as we try to engage with them."

Andy Achenbaum and Brother Robert met a year ago on a trip to Turkey. Achenbaum has written here before, but most readers of Generations will not know that Brother Robert Lentz is arguably the greatest living iconographer in me United States. The two men are roughly the same age, but the differences in the men's backgrounds and life experiences are great. Yet both romance God, supporting one another on their respective paths. Here are excerpts from notes along the way.


Brother Robert Lentz: Artists often explore boundaries and move them around, especially in times of cultural stress and change. Although playing with boundaries sends shivers down the spines of those who are committed to enforcing and preserving them, it also renews the structure of a society.

Icons are essential to the human soul, for they are the soul's primary vocabulary. As such they are found in every human culture. All those who go to God in love travel basically the same path, for love transcends cultural and intellectual borders. As Riimi said, "Reason is powerless in the expression of love." If we are traveling the same path to the only God there is, we can learn from one another. We can also support and refresh one another.

Icons are images of God's kingdom, and God's kingdom is larger than the church. To paint an icon of someone is a statement that the person is holy and thus belongs to God's kingdom. To be holy is to be filled with God's presence, and God's presence brings brilliant light.

Andy Achenbaum: Unlike Brother Robert, I am a consumer, not a producer, of art. My spiritual journey did not begin in earnest until midlife. Nurtured by the texts of my religious upbringing, I increasingly turn to the arts, sacred and secular, to pierce my heart, to help me to envision the loving face of God in all creation.

I listen to music to focus on the Ineffable. At first I selected bombastic warhorses, such as the last movement of Mahler's second symphony, which afforded me intimations of transcendence. With age I like to hear angels play Haydn. That said, I still find it difficult to stay still for long. I prefer the sound of the wind to silence.

More visual than aural, I began to collect art. Crosses, weavings, and folk art particularly appeal to me. I seek bold objects, products made by indigenous peoples south of the Equator and in the Pacific Basin. Their depictions of joy, compassion, and suffering get me out of my mindset. When I gaze on icons and retablos as I meditate, I need fewer words to get in touch with the Divine within and beyond.

Art has reinforced my sense that beneath my chameleon affect lies a nonconformist. In meditations I invoke a koan from Suzuki. I repeat a name a guru gave me on an ashram in India. I rub Anglican rosary beads while reading poems by Riimi. I am open to being surprised by the gifts of Creation wherever and however I find them.


AA: I did not realize the significance of my religious roots until adulthood. My parents chose to raise their sons in a growing Episcopal parish in suburban Philadelphia. There I learned the importance of moderation and the beauty of well-crafted prose. The clergy appealed to their congregation's liberal Republican politics and socially moderate convictions. Norman Vincent Peak and Norman Rockwell would have approved.

College little affected the intellectual trajectory of my religious growth. I moved more to the left, theologically and politically, admiring how Dr. King put faith into action. But "church" remained my bulwark. The way to my heart was through the head and then only if the message were expressed in just the right words and cadence.

My religious complacency was shaken after my father died suddenly. His brother (whom I had not seen since I was 8) confirmed what I had suspected: my paternal grandfather was a Jew. Cognitively, Jesus the Jewish peasant made more sense to me than Christ in silk regalia, but how on earth was I picked as an escort for debutantes? The truth shattered my prideful sense of noblesse oblige. Still, it gave me a foretaste of the liberating freedom that comes from not quite needing to fit into the mold.

BRL: People often ask me how I began painting icons of modem "saints." I grew up on tales of saints and labor unions the way other children grow up with fairy tales. My Russian grandmother was there with the images of saints covering her living room walls.

One of the important memories of my childhood is a word my grandmother always used for God. She spent much of her time praying, and prayers tended to slip out unexpectedly at the edges of her life. "Dear God" was the only way I ever heard her address God, and she quietly spoke the phrase many times each day. Her eyes reflected her faith. She found God wherever she looked.

Grandma's expression deeply affected my spiritual life. She taught me that religion was life, not an isolated element in my life. I didn't consciously imitate her, but I cannot remember when I, too, have not addressed God as "dear? Beneath the word dear was a spirituality that flooded my being as a child. I cannot remember when God was not my intimate friend.

Walking across the sloping prairie at the age of 5 or 6,1 became increasingly aware of a living presence beneath my feet. Before long I was on my belly, with several ancient pebbles just inches from my face. I stared at them with fascination and heard them speak quite dearly what was to become the core of my spirituality: "God," they said, "is the heart of all that is." But I also learned that the heart must work to see the faces and to hear the sounds of suffering.

My father was also there, telling me Gospel stories, like the one about Lazarus and the rich man and about children a little older than me who had worked and died in mines and factories in this country. I knew about the Ludlow massacre, which happened south of where we lived in Colorado, where Rockefeller's goons had killed men, women, and children on a cold Easter morning in 1914.

Grandma showed me a transcendent, infinite God-and icons that spoke eloquently of that God. My father showed me a human Christ, still suffering in our midst and asking us to respond. These memories haunted me during college, and I began painting icons as soon as I could slip from the clutches of formal education. The icon is the best way I have found to tie together the immanent and the transcendent-and tied together they must be.


BRL: When I was 7 years old, I wrote an essay about my life's ambition. Back then I wanted to be a Franciscan. Ten years later, I was on a train, headed for that dream. I did become a friar and even worked in the romantic adobe missions of New Mexico's Indian villages. In time, I began to realize that my dream was more complex than I had imagined.

In my own search, wisdom from various Native American cultures has nourished me. In my forty-second year, seven years after leaving religious life, I set out on a pilgrimage on a wet October morning.

Up through the mountain forests I hiked, 10,000 feet and then higher. Heavy gray clouds nuzzled the steep mountainside, hiding and then revealing blazing orange balls of aspen foliage. Cut off from the ordinary world, I realized that I was not alone. That morning, in the silent forests of spirits and aspen, I encountered the Mountain Spirits, special guardians of the Apaches.

A month passed and I traveled south to the Mescalero Apache reservation near White Sands, New Mexico, with its summit cave of the Mountain Spirits. For four days I spoke with medicine men and women. For four days I was surrounded by Apache hospitality. Two weeks later, I returned and climbed to the cave of the Mountain Spirits to pray. I was becoming part of this precious land with all its "pagan" richness and truth.

Two months later, I presented the Apaches with an 8-foot icon I had painted of Christ as one of their own. The Apache medicine men blessed the icon, which now hangs in their church, with cattail pollen during Mass. This phase of my journey, fueling the image of an Apache Christ, attests to how far I have traveled from the Greek monastery classroom where I was trained. I was prepared to move beyond the conservative Byzantine images I had painted for years. Ironically, the wider I cast my nets, the more profoundly I saw the essence that lay within my own spiritual moorings.

In the desert and mountains of northeastern Arizona, the Navaho people preserve an ancient way of life on a remnant of what was once their land. They have suffered greatly under U.S. domination, but they have survived and even flourished to some extent. Their history and art bear witness to the strength of their culture.

Beauty-hozho-is the highest Navaho ideal. It is an essential, dynamic element in human life. Beauty is not so much in things as in the relationship between things. It is not to be collected but created. Navaho culture is fundamentally an artistic way of life, and most Navahos are artists of some sort. Beauty, for the Navaho, includes harmony, goodness, well-being, and order. To me, Navaho and Christian spirituality have much in common. The essence of Christianity is a tiny kernel that demands incarnation in each culture of the world. However tiny that kernel, it is so infinitely rich that it must be expressed in as many idioms as possible. Emphasizing a life of beauty is one way that Navaho culture can enrich traditional Christian spirituality. The entire world is a divine epiphany, if only we have eyes to see. Because of our human condition, no one expression is ever complete. As a Navaho chant puts it,

In Beauty (happily) I walk

With Beauty before me I walk

With Beauty behind me I walk

With Beauty above me I walk

With Beauty all around me I walk

It is finished in Beauty

The verses parallel lines from the hymn, the Lorica of St. Patrick: "Christ within me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me." For all the differences in spiritual paths, the signposts often resemble one another, enabling sojourners to celebrate on common ground along the way.

AA: Life-threatening crises prompted and in due course accelerated my spiritual longings. A brother, a mentor, and a friend all died within four months around my 40th birthday. My latest book, a blockbuster in my opinion, went virtually unnoticed in the media. During a long, unproductive, torpid summer, I was not sure how long I could or would endure the overwhelming pain or cope with inescapable sadness. Therapy and drugs did not help.

The episode opened me to my own vulnerability. As the cloud lifted, I found the courage to give up the conceit of being master over my destiny. I put my trust in God. The line between me and the stranger, especially the disabled, proved more permeable than I had imagined. I knew the power of death, but somehow I came to appreciate in new ways the precious gift inherent in life's fleeting fragility. To awaken sane was cause for thanksgiving. I felt born again, seeking meaning from Nature and relationships. From the dark woods I emerged intentionally on a journey, clueless to where the path led.

In a world where people rarely get second chances, I faced deaths in many guises for a second time and survived. My mother died five days after my thirty-two-year marriage dissolved. On the job front I became ensnared in politics vicious enough to make me sick. I resigned a deanship the day I had a biopsy that resulted in sepsis and an e-coli infection that required two years of Cipro and other antibiotics. My bout with cancer was less life-threatening than the prostatitis, the worst case in Houston in three decades. Miraculously, a tenacious surgeon spared me a colostomy.

Approaching 60, keenly aware of my own finitude, I felt that I had to change my priorities, to let go of ambitions and even relations that no longer seemed to matter. It was time to stop compartmentalizing my personal self and professional ego. Integrity lay in centering my research and teaching on matters of spirituality and aging. More importantly, I felt called to volunteer several hours a week at a homeless center.

I am at peace in that shelter. Volunteers and clients wear name tags to level the playing field. Most guests are grateful for the warmth, physical and social. They thank God for the coffee, the food. They thank us for being there. I am grateful, too, to honor the God-given dignity in each of them. By respecting our common humanity, our individual vulnerabilities, I am part of a link, an extension of boundless Love.

BRL: "Show us your icons," declared St. John of Damascus, "and I will show you your faith." Artists can help us stretch boundaries that might otherwise cramp our spiritual growth. They explore beyond boundaries and move them around. When a culture respects its artists and encourages their creative "play," new insights flow into it and keep it moving forward.

As an artist, I have been climbing fences for years and dragging treasures with me to share on every side. I scatter hoarded Byzantine treasures wherever I go, and when I come back, I have wealth from Native American, African, and ancient European spirituality to share.

Every ancient religion in the world is essentially a wisdom path, beneath its exoteric surface of myth and ethical norms. The beautiful symbol of a huge wagon wheel with many spokes connecting the rim with the center is the best I have found to describe religious (and, by extension, spiritual) experiences. The spokes connecting the rim to the center represent the unique wisdom path which ultimately leads to God. As the spokes approach the center, they come closer and closer until they finally touch. The greatest of all tragedies is that most of humankind is content to sit out on the rim, listening to stories about the center, while only a few in any tradition struggle down the spoke to find out for themselves.

I have taken the risk. Approaching 61, I have found incredible commonalities between my Franciscan vocation and the soul of Islam, just as St. Francis eight centuries ago recognized the heart in his God-talk with the sultan of Egypt, Malik al-Kamil. At the core of our traditions is an insistence on the "otherness" of God. At the same time, mystics of both our traditions have given their lives to the contemplation of the transforming moments of union with God that they have been able to express only through poetic description. Hardly oblivious to the differences, much less the violence, that mute interfaith dialogue, prayer makes possible the transcendent, mystical vitality in each tradition. (Brother Robert returned to the Franciscan Order in 2003, at age 57, after living outside for thirty years).

Spiritual journeys, like Life itself, abound in serendipitous contingencies. This dialogue would not have taken place had Brother Lentz's grandfather, one of a long line of Cossack warriors, killed Achenbaum's grandfather as he was escaping Russia for the new world. Each author is a traditionalist who has taken huge risks, professionally and personally, many ending in sadness or failure. What brings them together, often sitting in silence, is the first- hand realization that growing older does not invariably lead to wisdom or piety. By letting go of trivia, each struggles to live in the present amidst the powers of Immanence and Transcendence. By turns worldly and world weary, each presses on. Uncertain about the next bend in the road, we stand ready to probe our hearts and the universe for soarks of the Divine.


McGrath, A. 1999. The Journey. New York: Doubleday.

Andy Achenbaum, Ph.D., is professor of history and social work, University of Houston, Houston, Tex. Brother Robert Lentz, O.F.M., is artist-in-residence and teaches Byzantine iconography, St. Bonaventura University, Okan, N.Y..

Copyright American Society on Aging Summer 2008

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