The Arts, Indian Horse, and a Firestorm

Tuesday July 20, 2021

In today’s Morning Prayer with the garden congregation from Canterbury Cathedral Dean Robert began with a rather long list of pressing global concerns: The fatal deluge of flooding in Western Europe; the human rights abuses presently enacted on minority populations and young male adults in Burma/Myanmar; firestorms in the United States; the fragile return to social opening in Britain.

For my part I added local concerns here in the firestorm now called British Columbia, as evacuations and new fires increase daily both in number and intensity. A national reflection on the impact of colonialism on Indigenous persons and communities continues. Here in Kamloops the intensifying conflict between some of those who live on the street and some severely affected local businesses is reaching fever pitch.

It’s all a bit much as I sit in the comfort of my air-conditioned living room. I am so privileged. I manage the world from my cozy armchair. I can come and go as I please; I engage or retreat at leisure. Yet I am aware of some things which are of concern, and I want to help, somehow, somewhere. Christians and those who identify with other faiths are told to pray, unceasingly, and to a lesser or greater degree without a specific outcome in mind. I want to connect with power or presence sometimes evident, though often  obscured in the patterns of daily living.

How does one pray, me included, and through what lens or means does such prayer occur? Prayer is text and beyond text. It is contemplative and highly vocal. It is both discipline and glorious opportunity. It is both a foundational practice and sometimes last resort. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” (and everyone else).

I am presently re-reading My Bright Abyss by the American Yale University poet/theologian Christian Wiman. First published in 2013 when I first encountered it, I found the text at that time interesting. I now find it arresting. I find his words prophetic and remarkably prescient. For instance:

“What is poetry’s role when the world is burning? Encroaching environmental disaster and the relentless wars around the world have had, it seems, a paralyzing, sterilizing effect on much American poetry. It is less the magnitude of the crises than our apparent immunity to them, this death on which we all thrive, that is spinning our best energies into esoteric language games, or complacent retreats into nostalgias of form or subject matter, or shrill denunciations of a culture whose privileges we are not ready to renounce—or, more accurately, do not even know how to renounce. There is some fury of clarity, some galvanizing combination of hope and lament, that is much needed now, but it sometimes seems that we—and I use the plural seriously, I don’t exempt myself—are anxiously waiting for the devastation to reach our very streets, as it one day will, it most certainly will.” ― Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

Many commentators cite Wiman’s first line, reminiscent of “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.” Is poetry or any other art for that matter simply a distraction, a trivial invitation to avoid responsibility in the face of an emergency? Wiman’s interest and special gift is poetry. One could however substitute any of the arts, visual, musical, any creative process as the medium of expression. How does one’s own special gift collide or mesh with the multiple sadnesses or disasters of our day? Do we simply retreat into the comfort of personal security in a prolonged flight from fear? The reaction is understandable. We protect ourselves from danger and injury; in some cases this will be necessary. Compassion fatigue is real for so many of us. We can and must admit the limits of our power over persons, events and circumstances. In prayer and conversation we can experience a power with the experience of others including adversity.

This summer in the BC Interior, devastation and firestorm have indeed come to our local streets, in the form of heavy smoke, a parched earth, a growing number of anxious displaced persons, health challenges and in the case of the Mountain Village of Lytton BC, total destruction within the space of twenty-two minutes. Devastation, real destruction is here, and now, and continuing to expand.

I love Wiman’s line: “There is some fury of clarity, some galvanizing combination of hope and lament.” I suggest this combination is where the arts can thrive. How might an artist, a photographer, a jazz musician, a dancer, a novelist or an orator keep these things in tension, not demanding immediate resolution, but in a way that keeps a delicate balance between a hope which encourages, and a lament which expresses grief and truth, all in a context which is both accessible and open ended.

One marvellous example is the movie Indian Horse based on the book by the late Richard Wagamese. Much of the information regarding Indian Residential School experience is well known though less clearly understood or admitted in some quarters. As an aid to moving reconciliation forward, through truth telling and newly energized listening, the conversations portrayed, the physical aggression, the ongoing blatant racism, rampant cruelty, the actions totally misguided and at times abusive influence and leadership, all in the context and experience of the story of particular residential school students, is powerful, effective and in the end, life giving.

Any art which tells the truth, which addresses head-on the social and environmental challenges which surround us, art which creates hopeful laments which inspire and at times delight participants, performers, creators, viewers and onlookers will enrich our lives and help us engage and discern more deeply with greater satisfaction the beautiful world we inhabit, all creatures, together.

Is this too lofty an ideal? I hope and think not.

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