Tuesday, July 29, 2008

5. Religion, the Cross, and Me.

When I started this blog I had a vision of posting my day by day experiences. I thought I would be talking about the area, my paintings, and reflecting on Thomas Merton the artist. I thought I had made my point on religion and the cross at the beginning of this blog and that there was nothing left to say on the subject. I was wrong. The drive into the monastery was itself a religious experience. Talking to Sister Kathy was also like a religious experience. She was so kind, so gentle, so open and friendly it made me ashamed of how stereotypical shadowy, secretive, harsh, mean, and unpleasant I had assumed religious women in monasteries were. I had been wrong and was somehow elated by the fact that things were quite the opposite of what I had thought them to be.

After leaving the monastery in a good mood I became upset when I found that I could not get to the area where Thomas Merton took his photographs. I was upset that I couldn’t paint as I had planned. But my disappointment didn’t last long. For some reason, as I walked the bluff overlooking Needle Rock, I felt calm and accepted that it was meant to be as it was.

The object of my trip now shifted from painting to religion. It kept going through my mind, why am I thinking in terms of a religious experience? Why are things not the way I thought them to be? Why can’t I get the entire monastery experience out of my mind? Why am I not upset that I am not painting?

The next day as we traveled up the coast to Oregon my mind kept returning to the monastery and all that I had experienced. Then, while we were driving on a road above the ocean, as we turned a corner, this huge steel cross appears. What was this big cross doing out here on a cliff in the middle of nowhere? Why is it here? Why am I here? Of course there are logical reasons for both questions. The cross was there because down the side of the cliff, out of sight, was a small Indian cemetery. I was there because I was unable to paint at Needle Rock. But still, in the frame of mind that I was in, I couldn’t help thinking that somehow there was a message here for me.

As we drove further up the coast I had just about convinced myself that I was being foolish and that I was over thinking everything and that I should forget about the monastery, religion, the cross and all the rest and get back to thinking about painting. Then something truly astounding happened.

We were on Highway 101 just south of Gold Beach, Oregon, when we came upon a young man walking along the highway carrying a large wooden cross. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We passed him and pulled off the highway about a quarter of a mile up the road at an overlook. I joined Alice and Doug as they viewed the beautiful Oregon coast. However, I was distracted by what I had just seen. I returned to the car. Soon I saw the cross carrier coming up the hill. I sat and watched him. When he was just across the road from me, for some unknown reason, and I feel almost embarrassed by admitting it, I shouted back to Alice, “I’m going to walk with him.”

I crossed the road, caught up with him and said, “Do you mind if I walk with you a bit?” He replied, “ Not at all, please, be at peace and join me.” I couldn’t believe I was doing this. His name was Jacob and he was the most gentle, soft spoken young man I have ever met. As we walked he talked continuously. He talked about Jesus, and said he was where Jesus had lead him and he was doing what he thought Jesus wanted him to be doing. He didn’t preach to me, he didn’t try to convert me, he just talked about how happy he was to be doing what Jesus wanted him to be doing.

After about an eighth of a mile I said I had to go back. He stopped. I shook his hand and wished him well on his journey. He said, “Thank you brother for walking with me.” I went back to the car to an astounded Alice. She asked me what possessed me to walk with him because I am usually critical of religious people who flaunt their religion. I said I didn’t know why, I just felt compelled to walk with him and that I was glad I did.

We stayed awhile at the turnout while Doug took some photos. When we returned to the highway and drove toward Gold Beach the cross carrier was nowhere to be found. I watched for him the next day but he was gone. If Alice hadn’t taken a photo of me walking with him I would be ready to believe this never happened, that it was all in my imagination. But it really happened and I have a photo and two witnesses to prove it. After that, for the rest of our trip I didn’t even try to paint. I brought my paints along as we took the Mail Boat tour up the Rouge river but I never even took them out of my carrying case. I don’t know what this was all about or what it all means for me as a painter, if anything. I’m not trying to interpret all this I’m just telling you what happened and how I responded. I don’t know if my response was just because of a buildup of religious thinking as a result of my Cattle Brand Project or if there is something changing in my approach to art and painting. I just don‘t know.

But make no mistake about it, in spite of it all I am still a non-believer and there is no way I will become a Thomas Merton Christian. But I will have to admit that there are still things I don’t understand about religion, the cross, and me.

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