Abba Evagrius said: While you sit in your cell, draw in your mind, and remember the day of your death. And then you will see your body mortifying. Think on the loss, feel the pain. Shrink from the vanity of the world outside.
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 3.3
Last night I was honored to participate in a panel discussion at the Acton Institute (my employer) that discussed the art of Margaret Vega, a professor at Kendall College of Art and Design here in Grand Rapids, MI. The subject of my contribution was “Death and the Struggle for Permanence.” Given the many ascetic commendations of meditating on the day of one’s death in the Christian tradition (see above), I figured that it might be of interest to readers at Everyday Asceticism as well. The full text, with some light editing, is below:
Death and the Struggle for Permanence
Panel Presentation on Margaret Vega’s “Perpetual Order”
April 24, 2014
Margaret Vega’s “Perpetual Order” highlights the dinergy or intermingled coexistence between permanence and impermanence in our lives. While many of the images depict icons of impermanence, such as the agricultural landscapes so defined by the cycle of the seasons or the blackboard upon which what is written can so easily be wiped away, the most striking image of impermanence is the original setting of the stone angels themselves: the cemetery.
Death is the final word of impermanence in the human experience. Not only are we vexed that persons dear to us, who are so full of life, do and will die someday, inevitably every person must face the fact that he or she will die someday as well. This contemplation of one’s mortality is a common impetus for existential crisis.
In the midst of this, however, we see these stone angels—strong, dignified, and enduring. Angels are not unique to Christianity. In certain Kabbalistic strands of Judaism, angels represent different aspects of the divine nature. On the other hand, in the ancient Jewish Book of Jubilees, we read not only of an angel of the presence of God and angels of sanctification, but angels of the spirit of fire, wind, cloud, darkness, snow and hail and hoar frost, thunder and lightning, cold and heat, the four seasons, and so on. Perhaps similarly, in Islam, as some understand it, angels have no free will and thus act, in a sense, as tools of divine action in the world. In addition, the pop-culture view that angels are the spirits of human beings actually finds a home in Mormon theology. And of course, in traditional Christianity angels are heavenly, immortal beings who serve both God and humankind.
What is common between the many angelologies of various world religions is the root idea of angels as messengers. This, after all, is what the Greek word angellos, from which we get “angel,” literally means. In cemeteries, then, one meaning of the symbol of the angel is as a messenger of another realm, a realm of permanence, where God exists, immortal and unchangeable.
Angels thus represent hope amid the human struggle for permanence in a life so characterized with the dark and tragic side of impermanence, death most bitterly of all. Heraclitus found the fact of impermanence so essential that he coined the phrase, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” And Socrates memorably declared that all true philosophers do nothing but contemplate death. And, at the very least, we may say that every major religion offers a way to engage humankind’s most primal fear, the fear of the radical impermanence of death.
But does “Perpetual Order” depict true hope amidst this struggle? On the one hand, as I have already noted, the angels are symbols of permanence amid impermanence. On the other hand, however, on the panel hanging in the meeting room to the left of the gallery and on the panels on the gallery’s south wall, we see how the angel’s wing bleeds onto the blackboard, ready to be erased. Here we can see most especially that angels are not themselves the permanence for which we hope and may just as easily represent the ephemeral nature of our hopes as their certainty. Margaret even shared a story with us earlier about a graveyard in Mexico City where stone angels had been reduced to rubble after a major earthquake.
Yet, I do believe that there is a sign of true permanence in “Perpetual Order.” In the midst of all the movement, corruption, and change of life, there is an underlying structure. As the Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote,
All flesh is grass,
And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, as well as in ancient Greek philosophy, it is this “word of our God,” the divine Logos—which means both “word” and “reason” or “order”—that lies beneath the ever-changing nature of the world. There is a structure to creation, an enduring word that upholds all things. We see this, for example, in the Fibonacci spiral of the seashells on the long, multi-panel composition on the east wall of the gallery. It is this divine word that constitutes the message of the angels, the heavenly messengers. And, for Christians at least, as we celebrate Easter this week, it is this divine Logos incarnate, Jesus Christ, which brings us the ultimate victory over death for which we all so hope and struggle.