Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Follow Me

Head of St. Peter
St. Peter Chapel, Cathedral
of St. Paul
St. Paul, MN
      I often stop at the Cathedral of St. Paul when I have some spare time and pray in the St. Joseph chapel, on the north side near the main entrance. When I say pray, I mean I kneel or sit quietly and strive to maintain a receptive attitude toward the Holy Spirit, in all feebleness and need. I do not pray because I am holy; I pray in the realization that I am not holy. I may say a few prayers for persons or other intentions that come to mind. I may say some Hail Mary’s if I am troubled with resentments or other vexations; I may recite the Jesus prayer to calm myself if my mind is churning with noise. However, mostly I am trying to keep a kind of watch. I look and listen interiorly for the sign of something moving lightly among the delusions of my every-day consciousness. Occasionally I will receive a moment of exceptional clarity of mind. It might be verbally articulate, almost like an instruction; or it may be some interior illumination that doesn’t bend to articulation. Sometimes these experiences provide help with some difficulty I am having in some area of my life; sometimes they leave me with a peaceful or hopeful feeling. Sometimes they startle me uncomfortably into greater wakefulness, having cast light on things I’ve kept in the dark. Some days, if I come in the afternoon before evening Mass, I will hear the group that recites the rosary in the St. Mary chapel on the opposite side, their voices murmuring in the rhythm of the prayer, something like holy white noise. On the rare occasion I am there in the morning after Mass, I will hear a group of devotees singing and chanting Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours.
      One mid-morning after sitting like this I rose and as I walked away from the chapel it dawned on me that I hadn’t heard any voices or footsteps for some time. I walked out into the main part of the sanctuary and it looked like I was all alone in the cathedral. There was no one in sight and no sound of any movement. Even quiet movements rustle and echo in that vast interior. I detected nothing stirring beyond the bronze grilles set in a half circle behind the high altar. The bronze crucifix and the golden tabernacle rested under the baldachin. At the four corners where the transept intersects the nave, and where the four main piers uphold the dome, stand the twice as large as life statues of the four evangelists. It was a peculiar sensation to have this ornate richness to myself, like having my room to myself when a boy, daydreaming, fifty-five years ago. But what a room this was! I was humbled, sized proportionally in spirit as I was physically to the great building; yet also it seemed the right size, neither too big nor too small, and theologically correct as well. As He would have died just for me, had I been the only sinner, so He saw fit to regale me privately for a moment, in the house made for love of Him, because He delighted to do so. That’s all.
      For all that, the cathedral is something made for Him, and obviously not Christ Himself. What He delights to give is passing away with the rest of my life; His intention is that I follow Him, and not remain where I am.
Blaze, 11 x 14, oil on panel
Copyright Peter Bougie 2007 private collection
      I have had a similar sensation at times while painting in front of nature, where He is present in his creation which, I imagine, if we could see it as He sees it, would not look anything like it does to us. I paint the observations of three or six or twenty or forty hours. No two moments are the same; distinct incidents define each one. I observe some of these incidents and make a resemblance to nature, something others recognize as a likeness of what they see. It looks like a moment but is really the sum of many moments. He sees a river in its valley or a forest or an ocean like we might see it if we were able to make some sort of time lapse photograph spanning eons of time, and even then, our film would only show the outward appearances of things. It would not show all the weaver birds weaving nests, worms burrowing or the ten thousand times twenty scurryings in leaf litter occurring in one acre, or sap rising in trees, or osmosis through cell membranes, or the process of photosynthesis exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide a billion billion times, or so I suppose. He sees not only the contrails when the flight has passed, but the landing, the takeoff, the serving of refreshments, the manufacture of the airplane, the whole flight history of the crew, the vanities and conceits of all aboard, the slightest variances in instrument readings from reality, and the anxiety of the traveler far from home. Even the hairs on our heads are counted, but generally not by us.
Contrails, 12 x 16, oil on panel
Copyright 2012 Peter Bougie private collection
      I paint my picture, and as I am fond of saying, if it is any good at all it’s as if He answers me and says “That’s not bad, kid. [I am not a kid to anyone but Him anymore] Now let’s see if you can hit the curve ball.” So, he throws it low and away and I reach for it; he throws it high and tight and I corkscrew myself into the ground. 
      I also sometimes pray in the St. Peter chapel, south of the high altar. I usually do penance there after receiving absolution following confession. How do I know I am absolved from my sins? How do I know the priest is in persona Christi, as far as the Sacrament is concerned? What did Jesus mean when he said, “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.” ? [John 20:23] Did he give the apostles the authority to forgive sins, or not? When the apostles laid hands on their successors, did they transmit the authority transmitted to them, or not?
St. Peter Chapel
Cathedral of St. Paul
St. Paul, MN
      I always feel thankful in that chapel, and optimistic at the feet of Peter. He could blunder and bluster and even betray Jesus, yet have contrition, and be called a saint. It was part of our Lord's intention to arrange things that way. When Peter first met Jesus and had heard Him speak, he answered his command: Master, we have fished all night and caught nothing; but if you say so, we will cast out our nets. And Peter thought, these teachers – He gets into my boat and tells me how to fish. Who does he think he is? And then the nets are full to bursting, and Peter makes his first act of contrition: Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man. [paraphrasing Luke 5: 1-8]
      But He would not depart from Peter, and He will not depart from us. Look for him on the water, in the dark, like a ghost, or asleep on a pillow in the stern; or standing alone before the Sanhedrin, falsely accused, and no one speaks in his behalf.
      You, He says, follow me.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Angels (and Fisherman's Rest Revisited)

We had the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, the Archangels, recently; and the celebration of the Guardian Angels shortly after that. I want to pause a moment to reflect on this. If we are thinking about the angels, let us try to remove from our minds whatever popularized or sentimentalized images may be pasted on them. Recall how the first reactions of persons in Scripture when confronted by angels are often of fear, and one of the first things the angel often says before delivering whatever message it brings is “Do not be afraid.” (Some links and references about angels are listed below.) I try to imagine an unexpected meeting with an angel by imagining being suddenly met with a person of imposing presence, striking appearance, and an air of authority, addressing themselves unexpectedly and directly to me and plainly expecting a clear and definitive response. As if before you can even say “Can I get back to you on that” the answer is “Respond, or not. Come with me, or stay where you are” Not that they are in a hurry, or that they are going to force me to go anywhere. And angels exist in eternity, so "later", as we understand it, is not even an option. Rather, I always have a choice to make about whether I am with the Lord, or not. Faith is not a matter of what I feel about God but about the relationship I have with Him. Jesus became flesh and walked the dusty, treacherous roads of 1st century Palestine so that the Ancient of Days, the Triune God, could be approachable in form and spirit: fully human, and fully divine. 

The Ancient of Days
William Blake, 1794
Public domain, Wikimedia art
In Luke 9:57-62, Jesus strongly urges that we follow him without delay. “And another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.’ Jesus answered him, ‘No one who sets his hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:61-62) Of this passage, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “There is the time of being called in which the decision is present, and it is more important than what we have thought out for ourselves and what is in itself quite reasonable. The reason of Jesus and his summons have precedence: they come first.”[i] As I said above, I always have a choice to make about whether I am with the Lord, or not. Impatience, sloth, resentment, fearfulness – even duty– or the Lord? Maybe that approach to the passage is scrupulous, or legalistic, or even trivial. Jesus was always teaching, and here He deliberately sets adherence to Him against another good thing, duty to family. He calls us to recognize not so much a hierarchy of values, but the greatest good. Remember that He said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Since that is so, other goods flow from that; they cannot be separate. The course of the river is below the source, never above. Grace flows downhill, as it were. Pride by nature is uphill of grace. You’ve heard that you can’t go home again; you can’t get to grace from pride, either. Doesn’t any preference I have for my own way, over against the truth, have a taproot in pride?
If I am scrupulous (prideful) regarding sinful shortcomings, I might miss a harmful attachment to something good of itself. It is harmful if I cling to it in favor of God, the greatest good. An attachment to home, for example; especially if in some period in my life I felt like I didn’t belong wherever I was, and then I found a place to call home, I might place a high value on that, and I would have to find ways to detach myself from it.

Fisherman’s Rest Revisited

After I wrote the post Fisherman’s Rest a couple of months ago, I talked to a man who grew up in the countryside relatively near to there. He told me that when he was a kid he would ride his bike the twelve-mile distance from his home to Fisherman’s Rest, to fish, while wearing his waders to boot. That would be hip waders or chest waders, I presume. He’s a strapping figure of a man now and about half my age; I can imagine his stalky adolescent self, peddling along Hwy 63 and the county roads, up and down some steep hills, in the waders, with fishing gear somehow attached. Not something you saw every day fifteen or so years ago and perhaps even less now, as the young become more detached from reality in virtual reality. He was determined, on a mission, and he is on a mission still as a priest of the Church. May the river of grace overflow for him.

The Red Shed, 11 x 14, oil on panel,
Peter Bougie Copyright 2018
That man has left this area, and he might be interested to know of some changes at his old fishing place. Man and nature have both been at work. The decaying building I painted is now gone. It is no surprise. On the day I painted that picture, a backhoe was parked on the opposite side of the building. Demolition was scheduled then and is now completed. Where the building stood a slope is now graded out. Standing near where I painted that picture, and looking through the space which the old ruin once occupied, I did a painting of a shed located a hundred yards or so to the north. It is also a building in decay although not as advanced as the other. The attraction here is the color red, intense in some areas and weathered in others; the bold angled shadow of the projecting eaves, the shadows within the openings of the shed (thick with ghosts that would flee, unsubstantial, should you enter), and the broad sunlit green grass before it, trimmed by the ample shade of a towering cottonwood. Some might find it nostalgic; for me it is more a matter of a combination of color, form, bright sun light and shadowed interiors (the heat of the day, a shaded resting place), and some subdued but evident indications of the near and the far.

We had heavy rains late in August and early in September, and the fallen tree trunk spanning the water in Below the Chute is gone now, too. It was a big log and high above the stream and I am sure it took some real water to move it out of there.

So the summer has passed, and it’s subjects along with it. The season, all blooming, all growth; such things remain as the rings that were added to the girth of each tree and the dry rattle to the end of each uncommon rattlesnake; some new paintings stacked up here in my home, among some from past years that still remain here, and the many remnants elsewhere I will never know about. “For the fashion of this world passeth away” (1 Corinthians 7:31) and we enter the dark time of the year.

The Red Shed, detail
Copyright 2018 Peter Bougie

Professor Peter Kreeft on angels:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on angels:

[i] Ministers of Your Joy: Scriptural Meditations on Priestly Spirituality, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 1989, an imprint of Franciscan Media, 29 W. Liberty St., Cincinnati, OH

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Month of August

The Month of August, 1994,, oil on canvas, 20 x 48
private collection
Copyright 1994 Peter Bougie

In August, the big bluestem is mature on the prairies; five, six, eight feet tall, the stalks golden brown to reddish brown on the ends, with the blue streaks extending down into the green near the ground. It sways gracefully in the breeze, the flagged seed heads tossed on the ends of the stalks, and the stalks relax back to vertical when the breeze subsides, or recoil in the opposite direction if the breeze blows hard enough; uncountable in their ten thousands per acre. The rosin flowers are blooming, sunny yellow, and some stragglers of coneflower and Queen Anne’s Lace are still loitering, as if in denial of the passage of summer. Goldenrod stands in insular clumps around the edges of meadows; sometimes it dominates where the soil was disturbed. If I am troubled by the world I can take comfort in these things. I can contemplate the fields, watch the grass grow. Let the chatterers chatter.

The Month of August, detail "fade to white".

I painted “The Month of August” in 1994. I made the one-hundred-mile trip from my home to what was then called O. L. Kipp State Park, now Great River Bluffs State Park, in southeastern Minnesota on the bluffs above Hwy 61 between Winona, MN and LaCrosse, WI. I did a lot of work on the painting on site, but it is not a traditional plein air painting. I prepared an underpainting in grisaille, flake white and greenish umber, in order to carefully establish the gradation of values for the hazy condition depicted in the painting. I established the drawing in grisaille on site, and developed the atmospheric recession logically – basically, fade to white - in the studio. Then I applied color over the grisaille using the underpainting as a gauge for mixing color (chroma) values (tones). I established the color notes on site working in the late afternoon and evening. As evening proceeded, the colors in the sky made subtle shifts in hue and color temperature in the reflections on the water. I could swear they shifted from moment to moment, changing in the seconds when I looked away from nature to work on the painting and then looked back again. I recall being fascinated by how the shapes of the islands and sandbars were shaped by the flow of the water, and by the shapes and textures made by air currents moving over the surface of the water or the look of a tree or clump of trees in the middle distance. It was a great delight to look carefully at things and come to know them, in a certain way. When you paint a subject from life, you see it not only in greater detail but much more intensely than you do observing it casually. You become familiar with whole arrangements of shapes and hues, of how lesser arrangements fit into greater arrangements, and experience all this as a sort of communication occurring over time. It is a more thorough and complete, if less urgent and intense, experience than a three-hour plein air painting.  More than that, there is an inner dimension to the experience which is indifferent to the act of painting. It is a kind of contemplation.  

The point of observation for the painting was from the bluff top about 500 feet above the water. It was an overlook cleared alongside a park road. The forests on the bluffs are hardwood- red oak, basswood, shagbark hickory, maple, walnut, chestnut, etc. Black squirrels are a peculiarity of the area on both sides of the river.  On site I was always accompanied by the sounds of vehicle tires slapping over expansion joints in the surface of highway 61, the noise of motors, and train whistles and steel wheels on the rails from freight lines on both side of the river. Now and then there was the deep diesel thrumble of tug boat motors pushing racks of barges up or down stream. A creature of sensation, I would breathe it all in deep. After the painting was finished, it was exhibited in various places and finally sold at an exhibit in Manhattan – to a purchaser from Minnesota.

It was the beauty of the upper Mississippi valley and the driftless area of western Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota that was part of the inspiration for my becoming interested in landscape painting. Since the early 1980’s I have lived about 100 miles north of the area that was so inspiring to me in my teens and twenties. I have not traveled there to paint since the 1990’s, although I have done a lot of painting north west of there in the countryside around Lake Pepin, on both sides of the river; and in the St. Croix river valley, and along the many small rivers and trout streams in Wisconsin that feed the St. Croix and the Mississippi.

The Mississippi is 493 miles long from its headwaters at Lake Itasca in north central Minnesota to the Falls of St. Anthony in Minneapolis. Not far below the falls the river receives its first two major tributaries; the Minnesota River at Ft. Snelling, hard by the current International Airport, and then the St. Croix at Prescott, Wisconsin. From Prescott the Mississippi forms the Minnesota/Wisconsin border until Minnesota turns into Iowa about thirty miles south of where I painted this picture. The river is already over 600 miles long here; it has traveled about halfway to the mouth of the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois, and a little more than one quarter of the way to the Gulf of Mexico. At this point its drainage area is entirely in Minnesota and Wisconsin, draining a large percentage of both states. Other major tributaries that have entered it at this stage are the Chippewa and the Black River from the east, and the smaller Cannon, Zumbro and Whitewater rivers from the west. Part of the Black River delta is shown in this painting.

The Month of August, detail,  Black River delta
It is said it takes a drop of water about 90 days to travel the 2,320 miles from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. That is a bit less than 26 miles per day, or slightly more than 1 mile per hour. Some of it will return as vapor in the warm fronts that take a few days to travel north up the valley. They will often collide with cold fronts descending from Canada, making wind and rain, and fall again on the limestone rock faces, backwaters and trout streams of this middle border.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Spanning the Waters

“Who has cupped in his hand the waters of the sea, and marked off the heavens with a span? Who has held in a measure the dust of the earth, weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or has instructed him as his counselor? Whom did he consult to gain knowledge? Who taught him the path of judgment or showed him the way of understanding?”   Isaiah 40: 12-14

Fallen Willow, oil on panel.
Copyright 2009 Peter Bougie
Summer flees. For long stretches of time during this prime season, for which I long and wait throughout the dreary post-Christmas dark, I am made indolent by the heat. There is extra inertia to overcome. Some activities are eliminated. Painting is affected too. I want some shade to stand in. I don’t want to broil and scorch under the full sun for three hours; not to mention it is unwise, (but some might forsake wisdom in favor of desire). If I paint outside I must make up my mind to put up with aggressive deer flies for hours. They are shaped like little swept wing jet fighters, they keep after you, and they like the heat. If I’m out of the sun, or if it’s a little cooler, I must contend with mosquitos, gnats, or no-see-ums, or whatever little things they are that land on my glasses and take a walk. If it’s tall grass I might rub an elbow with the eighth leg of a tick, and if it’s wet I risk making myself bait for chiggers, and subsequently scratch myself bloody in my sleep. Of course, there are sprays and liquid applications and other stratagems to employ against insects; they smell toxic and feel unpleasant on the skin and are by no means certain protection.

Snakes are active and make a sound indistinguishable from a breeze in the tall grass; you wonder what’s up when you realize that day-dreamy, breezy sighing noise is starting and stopping abruptly, and then you go looking for the reason why. Skunks come out in the dusk and are intent on their business. They don’t mind your presence if you mind yours, but don’t surprise one. They know what they’re about and you don’t, and incidentally, their backs are surprisingly luxuriant with fur. I’ve never had an encounter with a bear, and I’m not counting that a loss. Some people will say that black bears aren’t “that” big, by which they mean they aren’t as big as grizzlies. But they have large teeth and claws, so how big do they have to be? If a fifty-pound dog with a bad disposition can chew you up, what might a bear in a bad mood do? Woodchucks will approach you from upwind if you are still, and beavers slap the water in indignation at your trespass. Mink might run across your toes before you realize what has happened. 

Windfall, oil on  panel
Copyright 2003, Peter Bougie
Trout jump right before or right after you look at the spot where they do it, and they startle you like spooks when you comprehend their shape, the very color of the water and faintly outlined, hanging suspended in a pool or a current. Wild turkeys file along in a row, fledglings behind a matron; young adolescents wander abroad. Bluebirds or yellow finches swoop and lunge, indigo buntings flicker in a shadow, and robin nestlings not quite prepared to fly succumb on the ground to cats. Raccoon kits die in pairs on the road. And so on.
Bearing in mind the ends of things, I’ve done a lot of paintings of windfalls over the years, usually in the form of fallen trees along the water courses. They succumb not only to wind, but also to lightning, and sometimes to currents undermining a bank or to a violent flood. They can alter the course and speed of currents where they fall; cause partial damming, pooling and sedimentation, changing the character of a location. When I was a lot younger than I am now, I tended to look at everything in the world as being permanent. Waterways were always what they appeared to be, and I thought that trees were as eternal as the hills. But trees go down quite regularly along the waterways. Their fallen torsos remain until a flood drags them away and deposits them along another bank, or against the abutments of a bridge. Sometimes they sink. A few might remain a long time, if they have planted the shattered ends of a couple of stout limbs deep in the river bottom to brace high above the water, like one I found on the Rush River recently
Below the Chute, oil on panel
Copyright 2018 Peter Bougie
Photo by Nora Koch

I painted Below the Chute in a single session on site. I’m not sure if I consider it finished. My first glimpse of it was from a higher vantage than the painting shows, and it was a dark shape against the sunlit water and foliage behind it. Approaching, my intent was to capture that dark shape against the lighter ones. Arriving closer, I was much taken by the play of color value on the fallen trunk against areas of foliage and water, sunlit or shady, around and behind it. Here is light on the bark-less trunk, following the curve of its surface in an arc, silvered or bronzed on the weathered dead wood and contrasting with the living yellow-green or blue-green of foliage. There, a nickeled bronze, darker, gradating into a half-light, its warmth making a low vibration against a shade of green of just the same value in the water ‘next’ to it. The sunlight played on the whole scene in various ways while I stood and painted. There is a lot of foliage overhead and at times the whole fall was mostly in shadow, and dark against some lighter reflections on the water. I made a partially impulsive decision to paint the fall with considerable light on it when I observed the effect suddenly occurring before me. I say partially impulsive because I took a moment to observe the play of elements as they changed before my eyes and consider one against another, all in a short time. But I can’t stand and ponder while everything keeps changing; I have to decide. This entire program of light and motion, the turning of the earth and its movement around the sun, is never ceasing and always making innumerable iterations at every single moment, even in the most localized considerations. If I miss this wave, maybe I can catch the next one.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Shelter Her

The Virgin of Vladimir, detail
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
“The Virgin, weighed
with the Word of God,
comes down the road:
if only you’ll shelter her.”
St. John of the Cross, poem 13, Christmas Refrain. 

      May is over, but as we proceed I want to remind readers that in the Catholic world, May is also known as Mary’s month. That would be the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of God and Queen of the Universe. Notwithstanding the exalted language, she wants to reign in our hearts from within with our consent, and not over us from without against our consent, with authority conferred by her Son, who at the same time asks us to take her into our homes (see John: 19, 26-27; and the last two paragraphs of this post). And if we did, how could we live proudly or vainly in her presence? All the more reason to remember her during the rest of the year: "If only you'll shelter her."
      I am thinking of the recent annual fashion gala at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Not that they and I are much concerned with each other, but they laid some claims to engaging with what they called “The Catholic Imagination” in a recent event and ongoing exhibit. Their Exhibition Overview states: “The Costume Institute’s spring 2018 exhibition-at The Met Fifth Avenue and The Met Cloisters-features a dialogue between fashion and medieval art from The Met collection to examine fashion’s ongoing engagement with the devotional practices and traditions of Catholicism.” Exhibit overviews and artists in general are prone to make hyperbolic statements regarding the scope and intents of their purposes, so we shouldn’t take any of that too seriously, except to note that the dialogue which is mentioned is really an appropriation; and to remember that fashion statements and devotional practices have very little in common, claims of ongoing engagement notwithstanding. If we do that we resist bewitching. I have read that the exhibit is tastefully done, although the opening gala associated with it, featuring celebrities and fashionistas in “Catholic inspired” costumes varying in degrees of absurdity, is to my mind the perfect scenario of form divorced from content, and an unintentionally suitable epigram for our culture.
      What has any of this got to do with sheltering Mary? One can hardly picture the Blessed Virgin Mary involved in any gala. Perhaps less clear is that she would not despise one either, as I am prone to; but when I despise I act out of pride, and she never acted out of pride. At the Annunciation she prayed:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, [italics added] my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day, all generations shall call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name. He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit, he has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” [Luke 1: 46-53]

      These words of Mary from the Gospel of Luke are known as The Magnificat. Uttered by a teenage Jewish girl moved to consent by the spirit of God to allow Him to become active in her life, they announce the true subversion of the world by Love, the ground, as it were, in which the cross is planted; the sedition for which she would have been roasted alive, had the powers of the world known her. But they didn’t know her then, and they don’t know her today. Even now that Christianity is two millenia old, we rarely see these words as being at odds with the kind of piety generally associated with the Blessed Mother, and we don’t think about how opposed to the order of things as we know them that these words are. To speak of casting down the mighty, scattering the proud, and lifting up the lowly is to speak of upheaval, of overturning the established order of the world. For all of that, they are not proud or boastful words. They do not threaten violence or bloodshed. They are worshipful of God and speak in faith of the mercy He will bring about through the ultimate injustice, the Cross. Mary believes He will bring mercy and victory over sin and death, although she doesn’t yet know how. The victory is won and the outcome is determined – even if all things have not yet taken place - and the resurrection reminds us that it takes place here, on the ground.

      Make no mistake about it, even when Christian values are misappropriated by others. For instance, there is a persistent error afloat which designates appropriately Christian values, like the poverty of spirit of the Beatitudes - “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, or charity toward the poor, a Judaic ideal found repeatedly in the Old Testament and developed by Christians in the New, as belonging authentically to Marxism, which is a murderously stupid ideology. I offer the history of the twentieth century, during which it caused tens of millions of deaths, in support my statement. No state, or body proletariat for that matter, can possibly practice the virtue of love, which is what is required of individuals who practice charity and poverty of spirit. That’s why individual communists can seem very impressive in their passion for serving the poor, while collectively they are monstrous. Marxism gets human nature exactly wrong. It supposes that oppressed humans are inherently more just than their oppressors, that it is the act of oppressing that ushers in evil, and not evil that ushers in acts of oppression.  Therefore, once oppressive ruling classes are removed, there is no more barrier to justice. The oppressed are inherently just - on the right side of history, as they say. Even if that were true - and it isn't - the fact remains that the oppressed never conduct these revolutions. Power opposed to power, as it were, always hijacks them; political players go to work. The brand of elitism may change, but the form remains the same. Contrast Communist inspired revolutions, like the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, with the Catholic inspired Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980’s, in which workers banded together with the Church took down the mock worker’s paradise of Polish (Soviet) communism, bloodlessly. Charity and love do not translate into Socialist revolution. The Blessed Mother would not have fit into any communist movement, since she trusted the Lord above all things; the party has no use for that. 
    "If only you'll shelter her." That would be in the spirit, in our hearts. If we investigate and contemplate who she was, we can only be moved to authentic respect and reverence. Then we can begin to form our actions as they arise naturally from that place.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Fisherman's Rest

Fisherman's Rest
oil on panel, 12 x 16, Copyright 2018
Peter Bougie
Photo by Nora Koch
    Fisherman’s Rest is a place on the Rush River in El Paso, Wisconsin (not Texas). It is one of those places you can find in remote areas, whether they are buried in a city or in the countryside. Somehow, they have avoided the ravages of progress. There is a stretch of road which proceeds to a dead end, where there is parking and a shelter for picnic makers and fishermen.  Dead ends are consoling. I know traffic will be limited. Along the river side of the road, before you come to the fork which takes you up out of the valley or down to the dead end, you pass the ruined building in this painting. On its downstream side is a broad greensward that someone has been mowing and leaving free for public use for, I’m told, at least fifty years. On this broad green lawn, liberally shaded by towering old cottonwoods, I painted this view of the past in profile to the present. So far it is a one session painting, although I am not oppossed to developing it further. What I like best about this old ruin is the shadowy opening underneath, which has an air of work long ago interrupted and left where it lay.
Detail, Fisherman's Rest
 The shade in the foreground is provided by an impressive cottonwood that must be at least seventy feet tall. It has a very straight trunk unbroken by limbs until arcs of them break out about two thirds of the way up. Tall old trees inspire me to speculate about their age and how it compares to the time line of my life history.  I wonder who rested under them, and when, and what was happening in the world when they did. 

Untitled Study, 16 x 12, oil on panel,
Rush River
  The second painting was done a few miles downstream near the Ellsworth Rod and Gun Club, showing the Rush a bit discolored from the recent heavy rains, and the willows and box elders bending over the water, making shadows under the banks. The valley of the Rush has become a little gorge here, and a tall palisade shades these waters, keeping the vicinity relatively cool throughout the morning hours. Hawks and vultures soar in its updrafts, remote from the water, which, a little downstream from here, is channeled over a rugged rocky funnel.  My wife Nora and I with her brother John spent a couple of quiet hours here one hot morning recently. Trout were rising; John would have known what was hatching and bringing them up. It was a hot day. After two hours, the paint on the panel had become quite sticky, and I could no longer work on it. I was using a copal gel medium, which sets quickly in the heat. Fast setting paint allows you to plan and create an underpainting you can paint over selectively and advantageously. Of course, you have to work fast, and once it reaches a certain tack, it's too sticky to paint on until it dries. Even slow setting mediums or slow (low v.o.c) turp set fast outside in hot weather, but I don't recommend copal gel for beginners. If you are working fast, it's often a matter of you win some and you lose some. Experience will increase your odds in this scenario. 

Delight in the world’s good
at the very most
can only tire the appetite
and spoil the palate;
and so, not for all sweetness
will I ever lose myself,
but for I-don’t-know-what
which is so gladly found.

            St. John of the Cross, Romances, #12, A gloss (with a spiritual meaning) #1.

1) Low v.o.c. or volatile organic compounds. Low odor spirits is low odor because it is less volatile - evaporates more slowly - than regular spirits.
2) St. John of the Cross, (Santo Juan de la Cruz) 16th century Carmelite mystic, spiritual advisor of St. Theresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, and still much revered Spanish poet.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Going Wobbly

“ Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.” [Isaiah 43: 18-19]

Spring Riffle, 11 x 8 1/2, oil on panel
Copyright  Peter Bougie, 2018
Photo by Nora Koch, copyright 2018 

       Painting a picture on location is an excellent way to live in the moment. It requires intense focus and concentration. It requires determination and the mental toughness to resist distractions, endure physical discomforts, and persist in working in spite of the dismay you inevitably will feel when you compare what you have painted to what you see – even when what you’ve painted looks good. Sometimes I console myself at the end of a session of painting by recalling that there’s a good chance my painting will look better when I am not comparing it to nature. That often turns out to be true. A strong composition will carry you a long way. Effects rendered true to nature, even dramatic light effects, set in a weak composition will not. In fact, it’s likely that the dramatic light effect you see will not look dramatic if it is set/composed poorly.
     Mind you, I’m not advocating for effects untrue to nature set in good compositions. That combination is unsatisfying in its own way. I am reminded of Degas’ criticism of the Impressionists (with whom he was sympathetic in many ways) about losing consciousness before nature. He mocked admirers of Monet’s Water Lilies for “going wobbly at the sight of a pond.” Plein air painting is in no way analogous to pointing a camera and taking snap shots. It is not enough to chase effects. You have to understand how to make a picture – and that is after you have gained at least a basic mastery of how to observe nature, and of your materials.
     This willow I painted once came up out of the dirt a pencil-thin shoot in a sand bar on the Rush River, in western Wisconsin. It did not set a course to ascend like an oak or a cottonwood. Willows are impatient. They seem to know they won’t last very long. And so, this one leaned to seek the light, to take advantage of spatial opportunities and to set itself against wind, frost and water. The leaning grows into a turning, twisting muscled gesture, a responsory comment to the conditions of light and the river bank; the company of other trees, the activities of reptiles and mammals, the flights of birds, and the metamorphosis of insects. I can’t cite the passage, but I recall that Thomas Merton[1] said something about how a tree praises God by being what it is. We praise God by being what we are, too; but we are more complicated creatures than trees. I mean that we can’t say to ourselves that we are sinners, and by being that we praise God.
     We probably think that we understand very well what trees are. I think we have a very limited understanding of what a tree is, not to mention everything else. We see all things as they are in a moment. But all things exist in a continuum. We can make a lot of accurate summations about a continuum with our intellects using information we gather with our senses, but we can’t literally perceive the continuum. We can observe it in its particular parts and reconstruct it in part – in very limited part - by reason. If we are really blessed – which means if God sends a gift – then we might have an intuition which causes us to make some leap. In case we are full of ourselves about our blessings, recall what Paul says: Who makes you any different? “What do you possess that you have not received? But if you have received it, why are you boasting of it as if you have not received it?” [1 Corinthians 4:7] This is not an admonishment to squash the achiever or the non-conformist. It is a reminder that we do not invent ourselves.
     At the base of the willow grows new grass, drinking its fill, a little cloud of green. Across the top of the composition is the reddish brown reflection (not the reality) of unleafed trees on hillsides beyond, and where the water is moving in riffles and tremors it is a silvery blue gray calling back to the sky. A stalk projecting from the willow near its base has caught flotsam in the flood. It is an incongruous recollection of surfeit and natural violence.

“In the desert I make a way, in the wastelands, rivers.”

Detail, unamed composition, Rush River 

[1] Catholic convert, Trappist monk, contemplative, author, 1915 – 1968.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The North Slope

            My wife Nora and I spent a couple of hours on the north slope of Rattlesnake Bluff recently. It was a fair early spring day, the kind we usually get in early to mid April but which has arrived later this year. It was a long winter, and I am thankful to have spring weather at last.
            The north slope of Rattlesnake Bluff faces toward Lake Pepin and is located on the Minnesota side of the lake. It is covered with mature hardwood forest. At this early season there is obviously no leaf canopy. The sun shines through to the ground. The ground is covered deeply with fallen leaves. There is very little undergrowth, for during the growing season little sunlight gets through the canopy. The slopes here are also scattered abundantly with boulders of many shapes and sizes that have fallen from higher up and come to rest where the steep slopes ease and flatten. I don’t know, but I imagine that most of these rocks were broken loose during the post glacial melting that took place up until as recently (as geological time is reckoned) as ten thousand years ago.
            I brought along a painting I did here two years ago with the thought that I might work on it some more and improve it. It is a painting that has some striking notes from nature in it, along with some others not so well observed, and which is not composed well enough to show. However, I did not find the painting’s location where I expected to find it. While looking for it in the wrong places, I found some things I hadn’t seen before.
            I was attracted by a large boulder planted diagonally on a mound, showing a green moss colored back on its sunny side. I ascended the slope to assess the view. Looking uphill I saw a ravine descending from the upper slopes. A movement across the slope above me caused me to stop; a white tail deer leaping elegantly and seemingly easily across steep terrain strewn with rocks and fallen trees. The forequarters go up over an obstacle and at the top of the arc, just as they begin to descend, the hindquarters are pulled up as if by a string. It covers more ground in two or three bounds than I can in as many minutes of trudging noisily through the litter. I continue up the slope pausing regularly, and the white tail continues uphill a hundred yards and more in front of me, pausing to look back over its shoulder, although not in a panic. It seems to understand I can’t keep up, but it does not want to become any more well acquainted. Humans, after all, extend their reach with guns and bows, albeit not at this time of year. It picks its way out of sight along the east edge of the ravine. There’s a kind of loneliness I don’t know how to describe in the flight of the deer, and in the sight of a dead skunk in a hollow below, its black and white fur disturbed in an unnatural way, its head concealed under litter.
            From the skunk carcass I look up to take in the whole ravine for the first time. It goes a long way up the bluff. There are steep places with exposed rocks with cavernous spaces showing beneath, and tumbled boulders in hollows as the thing descends in irregular steps. At the top two angled slopes appear to meet, and irregular shapes of blue sky show between tree trunks and crisscrossing limbs. The spirit sings a ravine; my heart and imagination rise in response. I picture a hard ascent, possibly snakes, possibly a skid and a fall, bruises, scrapes, possibly blood; certainly exertion and straining. Well, that’s if I were a younger man, or had prepared to do it today. I won’t do such a thing on an impulse anymore. I could still pull it off, but then I might not be able to do anything at all tomorrow.
            There are paintings to find in the ravine, and if I keep coming back I’ll find one someday. I’m not in a hurry to do so. I’m going to let it percolate for a while. Any given site will yield compositions. Study the sites in seasons and under varying light conditions. Come and go with a fresh eye. Learn to distinguish the spirit moving you from an errant impulse. For example, the spirit may be urgent, but it will never rush you. If it rushes you, it’s a spirit of another sort; it urges you to point and shoot, omitting the aim. Patience and determination uncover what is there to be found. Impulses make for misses.
            I walk west for a while, carefully picking my way through the litter. The drifts of leaves conceal fallen limbs, holes, ankle turners and things that cause one to lurch suddenly to one side or the other. At last I find the rock I painted two years ago, although the morning is too advanced by now to work on that painting today. I recall on that past morning I saw that rock standing out in the sunlight almost as soon as I entered the woods. It was like it beckoned me. I don’t see it highlighted like that today. It’s darker with moss than it was then. Almost like it is… not hiding; but turning away. I won’t paint here today. I’ll return another time.

Monolith, oil on panel, 16 x 12
Copyright 2010 Peter Bougie
The photo above is not a professional scan. It is the first painting I did at this location, back in 2010. Weathered, eroded limestone, intensely green moss, irregular patchy sunlight. A hauntingly beautiful place.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Debt Redeemed

         Once there was a very young boy; five, approaching six. He had only begun school recently, although it seemed a long time ago to him; and as far as he was concerned he was progressing satisfactorily in the direction of knowledgeability. At least at the time he thought there could not be not too much more to learn. At school he met a pair of twins, brothers of whom he became much enamored, and they of him. They each had round tow-colored heads and wore crewcuts, but he could tell them apart by certain slight distinctions of shape located around their noses. His family lived in a rented home in the countryside a mile or so outside of a small resort town in northern Wisconsin; the family of his twin friends resided nearby. The boy did not know it, but a monstrous authoritarian state had nuclear missiles aimed at the area where he lived, because his own government, of which he was also basically unaware, had military installments there established in opposition to the same. Such was the world they all lived in. Anyway, the twins did not appear in school for some days, and he learned that they were quarantined with the measles. 

Photo by Nora Koch copyright 2010

            It was winter. He lobbied his mother to go out one afternoon; he needed her help to get dressed properly for it, and he knew it. He would be out by himself, but his mother trusted him to stay nearby, because he was eager to take direction and perform according to expectations and had demonstrated his dependability by his deeds. But on this day, he was overcome by longing for his quarantined friends; and after he got out he made his way alone across a very broad field, through deep snow he had to lift his legs high and repeatedly to get through, in bright glare that made his eyes water, which he had not experienced before. Then it was past some tall trees and around a fence and an ancient rusted car, a Model T if he would have known, although he didn’t at the time (just as the entire world was the greatest mystery, but also as any fool could see, plainly self-evident). He went to the door, where he was admitted by a careless custodian watching over the twins. In fairness, she must have thought they were past the contagious stage. At any rate they played for some time on the floor, with shiny metal toy tanker trucks painted red with “Texaco” lettered on the tanker part, bumping over the edges of the rug onto the smooth wooden floor, and rolling into the padded lower extremities of a sofa. The twins each had a tanker of his own, and took turns sharing with him. He had brought nothing to share, but they were happy to have company after their long quarantine and remarked on the epic proportions of the journey he made to get there. It was a very satisfying hour of companionship, perhaps unmatched ever again. Finally, amidst hearty farewells, he was helped back into his things and made the return journey home, through the enormous arctic, following the tracks he had made to get there.
            His mother was very upset when he returned and became even more so when he related where he had been, and he received a scolding unlike any other he had yet received. He felt very real grief while being reproached for the whole affair, and his mother made it clear he was not to cross her will like that again. It had not been his intention to cross her will so much as to do his own – there is a distinction to be made - and yet clearly, in preferring his own he had given second shrift to hers. Somehow, he understood that. The boy’s mother remembered none of this when questioned about it many years later, and in fact contradicted it, maintaining that her entire tribe of children got measles at a later date, by which time at least one more had been born into the group than was present at the time of the incident related. The boy, long after he was grown, wondered: had that unrivaled hour of friendship ever occurred? If not, it seemed there was no other hour to step up and replace it.
            There is no one to ask about it now, the principle authorities are deceased, so the question remains unsettled. His family moved away from that place more than half a century ago, and he never saw those twin friends of his again. His younger siblings remember having the measles, but none of the incidentals associated with the illness. Were there ever any twin friends of his who lived beyond a vast arctic field, tall trees and a useless old vehicle rusting into the ground, whose matchless companionship was ever after longed for? Who inspired in the life of the boy this allegory of the fall, an exile from the garden that turned on the wayward will, desiring creation and denying the Creator? Oh, the boy had no thoughts like that at the time; only an impulse to do what he wanted which he acted on. The act positively flouted authority, although with a lack of comprehensive understanding and full consent. But even if culpability is limited, make no mistake, the will contrary to authority was active, and its fundamental rebellion was in simply preferring its own satisfaction to the regular order of life, which in this case was that young boys do not wander off in the winter contrary to the wishes of their mothers. He was about as innocent as a human person can be, a soul young and unschooled in worldly ways of rebellion yet was entirely vulnerable to inherent concupiscence. He later become well-schooled in worldly rebellion, according to foolishness acquired from the culture in the process of his formation, a kind of shoddy, venal abuse for which that culture accepts no responsibility (in fact it congratulates itself).
             He remained subject to redemption, but only by the Creator’s will, which is entirely gratuitous, and which knows well the blind and mistaken longing of the created to seek the Creator in created things, having walked in his very skin, some millennia ago, and hung on a cross to redeem the debt. By the logic of His love he would have done it just for you and only for you, if you had been the only rebel; so I have been told and have come to understand. The bargain is completed in the willing response of the created, which must be entirely free, and as humble and faithful as it can manage. For the created cannot see, but believing he can trust, even in the deepest dark or most glaring of chills. The offer is extended; it may be taken up or set aside. The blessing, as has been written, or the curse.
            One ought to be aware of what one is up against.
Photo by Nora Koch copyright 2010

Monday, April 2, 2018

Approaching the Cross

            This past Good Friday I took part in a silent public procession in St. Paul, MN. Organized by the local community of Communion and Liberation (founded by Servant of God[1] Fr. Luigi Giussani, 1922 – 2005)[2], the procession began with a gathering in the vestibule on the east side of the Cathedral; a song from the group’s choir and a brief address from Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who also accompanied us on our walk during the early part of the procession. We proceeded from the Cathedral north east to the State Capital Building, with a stop on Martin Luther King Drive in front of the capital for the 1st Station, the Arrest of Christ. Here and at each following stop, five in all, there was a reading from a poem by the French poet Charles Peguy[3], the Passion of the Gospel of John, a reflection from the writings of Fr. Giussani, a choral selection sung by the choir, and three verses of the Stabat Mater, sung by everyone. Otherwise we kept silence for the two-hour event.
            I’m not normally one to join in processions or demonstrations of any kind; but a silent procession, albeit with readings and proscribed singing, is the sort I can allow for myself. A public witness of perhaps a couple of hundred people, including many young parents bearing along and escorted by their many very young children. Led by a simple wooden cross and an escort of two cruisers with officers of the St. Paul police, to keep intersections open for our passing. Some members of the community mobilized a simple sound system for the readings and the singing, and kept it efficiently in front of everyone, ready to go at each stop. As I mentioned, the first stop was at the state capital, as progressive a shrine in St. Paul as anywhere; here from Fr. Giussani’s reflection we heard: “Salvation is a gift, it is not something we search for, and there is nothing we can do to receive it. Salvation has a name: Christ.” The Archbishop stood among us, listening and then singing. And here was read from St. John’s gospel the account of the arrest of Jesus. “‘Whom are you looking for?’ They answered him, ‘Jesus the Nazorean.’ He said to them ‘I AM.’”
            The next station was Peter’s Denial, read outside of St. Louis King of France Church, with the light rail ding ding dinging nearby. “‘Didn’t I see you in the Garden with him?’ Again, Peter denied it.” From Fr. Giussani: “That is the pain of your cross: you came to walk with us and we leave you alone.” From there it was on to Rice Park with the bronze girl in the fountain, and the Peanuts characters with their round heads so absurdly cast in bronze, and the cultural institutions of the city all around; the blank steel and glass of the Ordway theater, the castle-like Landmark Center, and the neo classical James J. Hill Library. “Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’” Said it to Jesus, to the truth itself; and tried, without effect, to release him. “God” Fr. Giussani notes, “who came among men goes to the scaffold: defeated, a failure; a moment, a day, three days of nothingness, in which everything is finished.” 
            The 4th stop was the Church of the Assumption, the oldest existing church building in the state of Minnesota (1874, one year older than our own St. Michael’s in Stillwater). The station was of Jesus dying on the cross. Peguy wrote in his poem: “
            “O culminating cry everlastingly valid
            As if even God had sinned like us.
            Committing the greatest sin.
            Which is to despair.
            The sin of despair.
            Louder than the two thieves hanging beside him;
            And who howled at death like famished dogs.
            The thieves howled but a human howl;
            The thieves howled but a cry of human death.
            Also they slavered but human slaver;
            The Just One alone uttered the everlasting cry.
            But why? What was the matter with him?
            The thieves uttered but a human cry;
            For they knew but human distress;
            They had experienced but human distress.
            He alone could utter the superhuman cry;
            He alone then knew that superhuman distress.
            That is why the thieves uttered only a cry that was
            quenched in the night.
            And he uttered a cry that will sound forever,
            eternally forever, the cry that will eternally
            never be quenched.”
            “After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said ‘I thirst.’ There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.”
             Turning from here, the beaux art granite and copper dome of the Cathedral rose above us under a pale, swept sky. We returned to the east facade of the Cathedral. There was a final song from the choir. Then we went inside for the evening service of the Adoration of the Cross.
            I recalled serving as an altar boy, over fifty years ago. With one hand I held up one cross arm of a large crucifix, and with the other a clean white cloth, with which I wiped the corpus after the people kissed it. The sun came in through the stained-glass windows and threw unexpected tints on everything; the pews, the somber colored clothes of the worshippers, the wrinkled hands of the old. One elderly woman approached, rather heavy and swaying a little from side to side; she made a great effort to get down on one knee, a real struggle, and some nearby extended their hands to help steady her. Once she got down, she kissed the feet of the corpus. Then she struggled up again, and made her way back to her seat, like a soldier who has just defeated his enemy, and it was just his job, just what he was supposed to do. I wiped the red stain of her lipstick away, but I will never forget her struggle to get down on one knee. It was the best homily I ever saw.
            I thought of that while we were in the Cathedral for the service, and for half a moment thought how I would like to write about it all in an email to my mother, because the whole afternoon was kind of a new experience, which you don't see so many of at my age, and she likes to hear about new things, and I am glad to have something different to write to her about. But half a moment doesn’t last long, and I remembered that she is gone, and I’m not sending her emails anymore.        
            A few pews in front of us, one of those young families we accompanied in the procession prepared their pre school age children to walk up and approach the cross. And around them all the other hundreds, gathered together under the vast dome, filing forward toward Golgotha.

[1] In the Catholic Church, the term “Servant of God’ denotes a person being investigated by the Church for canonization to sainthood.
[2] Fr. Luigi Giussani was founder of the international group Communion and Liberation. He stressed that for each person Christianity was essentially a relationship with Jesus, and that the morals and theology of the Church all emerge from this relationship.
[3] Peguy (1873 – 1914) was a French poet, essayist and editor. His thought was an unlikely blend of socialism and Catholicism. He was killed on the western front in France at the beginning of the First Battle of the Marne in WWI.
All the scripture quotations are from the Gospel of John.