Saturday, January 21, 2012

Visual Theology - Preaching the Gospel Through Art

Angels Gather Here is the title of Saint Bridget’s 2011 crèche. Part of the exhibition includes 12 black and white photos of the devastation caused by the tornado that ripped through north Minneapolis last May. The black and white images were enlarged, then cut up and mounted. These shattered images are displayed on five, large, white panels that outline the 2 room. Interspersed among the black and white images are small color photographs of volunteers, public workers, and resources that gathered to provide desperately needed relief in north Minneapolis in the weeks and months that followed. At the center of the room, the Holy Family is surrounded by four paper-lace angels. The 8’ x 24” panel designs are cut into translucent, white vellum and incorporate images and symbols from Jewish, Christian, and Native American traditions. The paper angels mimic a column of light and rotate protectively around the Holy Family.

Over the years I’ve developed a bit of a reputation as a Franciscan brother for the various crèche scenes I assemble at Christmas. Many hours are spent planning and executing the unique designs. The design often emerges as a response to the question, “Where is God in the messiness of life?” It is one way I enter into the meaning of the Incarnation.

A recent men’s retreat led me to a new insight into why I value spending so much time on crèche displays. The retreat facilitator invited the participants to recall the first experience they had of working “shoulder to shoulder” with their father. He suggested that this experience acts as a form of initiation for young boys into the world of men, and vestiges of that experience can be traced in the development of each man’s life. With a chuckle and an amazed nod to the facilitator’s theory I recalled a late afternoon in mid- December when my dad found me, his 11 year-old son, hammering away in his work shed on a Christmas present for my mother.

My folks had a beautiful nativity scene—a wedding gift from my grandparents. Although the set contained all the requisite characters of the Christmas story, I always felt bad that this Mary and Joseph had, not only no room at the inn, but also no stable. I was determined to make suitable housing to complete the Christmas story for my mom’s beloved crèche. I was frustratingly engaged in attempting to nail two, raggedly cut, ten-inch, two-by-fours together when my dad found me. “What are you up to?” he asked. Standing there with what, to me, was obviously a stable roof in my hands, I couldn’t lie, so I conspiratorially told him my gift idea. He thought it was a great idea but informed me that when you build a house you don’t start with the roof! He then introduced me to the finer points of home design and construction as well as the purpose and proper use of the boggling array of power tools that occupied the shelves and floor space of his work shed. Together, my dad and I hacked and hammered, primed and painted for the next few weeks. If memory serves me right, some of the wrapping paper stuck to the still-wet stable finished just in time for Christmas.

My mother loved her Christmas present. Ever the gallant man, my dad quickly informed her that I had built it. In truth, it was my dad that designed, cut, and assembled the beautifully proportioned stable – complete with a wing and window for the donkey! I was responsible for the glue gobs, bent nails, and blotchy stain. Every year thereafter, for as long as I lived at home, it was my task – and privilege – to arrange the crèche.

Whether one believes in the retreat facilitator’s theory about the shaping of men’s identities or not, I had to wonder at the fact that I have continued to construct crèche scenes for the last 40 years. Maybe I never grew up; maybe I am still trying to get it right; maybe I am still trying to please my mother; or maybe I am tapping the roots of my manhood and connecting with my father. Whatever the case, I know I love creating crèche scenes. Every year it is a challenge; and every year—much to the consternation of the pastor, local minister, or my fellow friars— I finish just in time.

I learned a few things from my dad. I also like to believe that I learned a few things from my father in faith, Francis of Assisi. Francis understood the power of the visual to move and inspire the hearts of people. Francis’ famous enactment at Greccio in 1224 was a form of visual theology. His assembly of the nativity scene was not simply a desire to re-enact an ancient story. Rather, it was a desire to re-present that ancient story in a new and memorable way so that its deeper meaning might be unveiled and the slumbering hearts and deadened hopes of the people gathered at Greccio might be resurrected. No one remembers what was preached that night in Greccio, but 800 years later what was visually re-presented that wondrous night is still remembered and reflected upon.

A few years ago Anthony asked me to preach about the particularly poignant – and disturbing—crèche scene I had assembled at Saint Bridget’s. I respectfully declined, stating, “I have already preached.” I don’t know if anyone recalls his Christmas homily that year. What I do know is that people still talk about that crèche scene and other crèche presentations before and after it. I’m under no illusion that these sometimes odd creations will be remembered 800 years from now, but I do hope that the theology I visually “preach” contributes to the prayerful reflection and incarnational acuity of a few people for at least a few years.

I believe that as a son I am using well the skills my father gave me 40 years ago in his musty, musky work shed. I hope that as a brother the “preaching” I offer through the arts inspires the hearts of the viewer. I trust that as a Franciscan each new crèche deepens an appreciation for how the Word made flesh dwells among us.

– Bro. David Liedl, T.O.R.


Diane Baum SFO said...

Brother David...I remember, as a daughter, working side by side with MY dad and the feeling of accomplishment was pure bliss. I would help him change the oil in the car and do tune ups. Through this, I was made to appreciate how we care for cars so they can last as long as possible, something I do for my kids now. Your story made me remember my deceased dad again...and I wish you luck on your creche creations. See? Creating a visual...? You just did. I thank you!!!