Death in the Wood of Ephraim (Dennis Aubrey)


As a child, I loved the story of David and Jonathan, even though for some reason, I identified with Jonathan (most likely because I have a brother of that name). David was one of the titanic figures of the Bible; warrior, king, and writer of psalms. But behind his façade of greatness, we clearly perceive a resolute, vulnerable, and dogged humanity.

Capital – David and Goliath, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

My adult attachment to the story came first from the beautiful lament by Heinrich Schütz. “Fili mi Absalom” is one of those phrases of which I talk so much, that go round and round in my head during the night. I subsequently read the long passage on David in Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” which opened my eyes to the betrayals and treacheries that lie behind the laments.

I remember as a small boy how David continually surprised me. I knew him first as the romantic slayer of Goliath, something appealing to a gosse. Then he was the shepherd boy chosen the King of Israel. But then to my shock, I learned that the anointed King was also an adulterer and a murderer. How difficult it was to reconcile this human weakness and contemptible behavior!

The very humanity that enabled David to kill Goliath and love Jonathan led him to covet another man’s wife and have her husband Uriah killed so that he might lie with her, have a child from that woman and when it died as an infant, refuse to grieve. After his affair with Bathsheba, his family was torn asunder. His eldest son raped his own half-sister and was in turn murdered by her brother, Absalom. The beloved son Absalom was forgiven by David, yet he subsequently betrayed his father and raised rebellion against him.

When forces loyal to David defeated the army of Absalom, Absalom fled into the Wood of Ephraim to escape. As the mule he was riding passed beneath a great oak, his hair got caught up in the branches. The mule ran on, leaving Absalom dangling by those beautiful long locks of hair that were praised throughout the Kingdom. Some of the men loyal to David discovered and killed him while he was suspended from the tree.

Capital – Death of Absalom, Basilique Sainte Madeleine, Vézelay (Yonne) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

David waited eagerly at Mahanaim for news of the battle and when he saw the messenger coming toward him, he rejoiced in the knowledge of his victory. But when he learned of the death of Absalom, that joy turned into inconsolable grief.

“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)

David lamented. He grieved over the death of Absalom as he had grieved over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. “The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19).

These lamentations run so deep that the sins of David pale in comparison. Can you imagine us today, how we would judge David if he stood in our midst? Would we recognize his humanity?

I have often wondered whether in the origins of humanity, song came first from joy or lamentation. When I hear a three-year old outside my window singing happily in his solitary play, it is tempting to believe that song originated from this impulse to joy. But when I hear lamentations and the keening of mourning in all cultures world-wide, I am more inclined to believe that the cry of the bereaved heart is the true source of song. Both joy and grief share an intensity that is far beyond the normal emotional or spiritual state in our lives, but joy is more ephemeral and grief longer-lasting. But it could be that the very ephemeral nature of joy makes it more worth marking with song.

Afternoon light, Abbatiale Sainte-Marie, Quarante (Hérault) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Stephan Vitas wrote me a letter recently that caused me some reflection, about how Abbot Suger conceived of the Gothic in order to “… bring folks out of the darkness into something a bit more uplifting. Let them see hope and joy when they raise their heads heavenward, not angels fighting demons of the dark.” This explains in a way that I had not previously considered why historiated capitals are not part of the Gothic vocabulary in the same way that they are in the Romanesque.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres (Eure-et-Loir) Photo by PJ McKey

This understanding perhaps echoes the thoughts of Angelico Surchamp, that “the Romanesque induces internal experience and reflection; Gothic induces external reflection. Gothic is the demonstration of the belief of spirituality while Romanesque is the experience of that belief.”

✚Note: Gordon Stewart’s sermon on “Holy Tears: David, Absalom … and Us” was the immediate inspiration for this post.✚

29 responses to “Death in the Wood of Ephraim (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. The story of David is one of both hope and sorrow! Being named after David ( the beloved) I was also curious to know more about this man and why God loved him so! Hearing of David’s failures and betrayals I felt like why he had everything man could desire! So for sometime I did not care for the story of David until growing a little older and a little more humble.

    Recently I read the story of a successful Japanese business man. His story is very interesting and speaks of great successes, losses, and once again even greater successes.

    When David was a Shepard he was not held high amongst his brothers for they only saw him as a Shepard boy who didn’t belong on or near the battle field. But as we know he proved them wrong and led Jewish nations to unit! However, later he failed through lusting after another women as you spoke of, but in the end he was still the father of Solomon who once against raised the Jewish nation back to power! Through David’s failures and successes Soloman had a role model he could use to grow to better himself.

    In the end I think what is most important is that we may stumble in our lives, but that is a valuable lesson we must go through to grow into men and closer to God.

  2. Dennis, this is such a profound reflection, in my view. Once again you weave the thread through the highs of joy and the depths of sin and sorrow in ways that move us beyond the separation of light and shadow/darkness that too often keeps us in spiritual and moral diapers, separating the sheep from the goats. Your note gives me hope that the time preparing for the pulpit is not in vain, especially when it is appreciated by someone who does not define himself as a practicing Christian. Freidrich Schliermacher spent his life in conversation with “the cultured despisers” (i.e., good, rational people whose sophistication had led them to conclude that religion was a relic that impedes the sure ascent of historical progress).

    In your photography and writings I find a conversation partner who lives at the razor’s edge between belief and disbelief, joy and despair, the heights and the abyss of nothingness, and the honest search for hope and truth beyond the illusion of inevitable progress. If Romanesque architecture “induces internal experience and reflection…” – the internal experience of the external expression of Gothic – your photography and commentaries continually weave the two together to achieve a rare depth, and a balance between the seen and unseen, the external and internal. I am deeply grateful. – Gordon

    • Gordon, you have to stop writing my obituary notes. Could one be any better defined than “a conversation partner who lives at the razor’s edge between belief and disbelief, joy and despair, the heights and the abyss of nothingness, and the honest search for hope and truth beyond the illusion of inevitable progress.” Thanks for the kindness of your words and thoughts here, as well as the inspiration to write this post.

      As far as your own efforts about the time spent preparing for the pulpit, I would say that you have to write, to say what you must, and those who understand and need will gravitate to your words. When I began this blog, it was an experiment, after all, who would be interested in Romanesque architecture? But when I heard your sermon using the “Elle Chante, Pere” post, it was like hearing the words of someone else speaking, not my own. It was so moving, because of the understanding that you brought to the text. If you do the same with texts so much greater than mine, I can only imagine how lucky your congregation is to have you as pastor.

      • No obituary. You have too many years of good work ahead of you, I hope. Thanks for the reply. I sent a revized copy of the earlier reply with corrected spellings. Not sure if you received it. Peace, Gordon

  3. Dennis, your incredible insight already enriched my day with an “aha” – and it’s not even 6AM yet. I can’t wait for you to author a book on your favorite topic and share your passion with like-minded people. Thank you.

    • Harushi, I had a wonderful conversation with by brother John Paul who has been a professional musician (French horn) for his entire adult life. So of course when I wanted information on the Heinrich Schütz piece I had to write him. His response was as follows:

      “There are some that believe that the origins of song stem from nature, and our desire to imitate what we hear all around us. I believe there is a lot to that theory, although we will never really know. What might be more important is the reason certain animals/birds/insects choose to make their sounds together – in tandem or unison. I think this might hold more clues as to the origin of human song.
      Personally, from my experience as a performer, I suspect the origins might lie in our need to express certain emotions (joy, sorrow, lamentation, etc – are they really that different from one another?) in a unified manner. In other words – song allows groups of us to express feelings together – as one.

      He referenced a book which I’ve already ordered, having read excerpts on the Kindle.

      “Song allows groups of us to express feelings together – as one.” Our world is so rich and complicated that it seems foolish to try to encompass it within the narrow band of our own minds.

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  5. Dennis, I love the inclusion of the singing of the three-year-old boy. I believe that song derives from joy and innocence when we are young, and then grows in richness and depth as we age…and the sorrows, fears, and loss of innocence force their way into our voice. Both are pure, both stem from the depths of our beings…they simply differ in source. Which came first? The briefest song of innocence, I think. Followed swiftly by lamentation.

  6. Dennis,

    Superb reflection… and very helpful comments by fellow subscribers to this recent post.

    These reflections remind us that in all art there is a need for contrast: light against dark, dark against light, highlights, and accents. We understand that in painting, in order to model form we must have at least three changes in the values of light and dark colors that are describing the intended form.
    This applies to your work, and reflections, in that the images that you and PJ produce clarify for me the truth that the Romanesque and the Gothic are not in opposition; rather, they are necessary partners that help us, one thousand years later, to understand the truth of the Romanesque solidity of faith and the joyous expressions of the Gothic spiritual song.
    Would I be incorrect in saying that the Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque would be the three value changes that help us understand the form of the Roman Catholic Church’s spiritual/artistic expression?

    • Paul, would agree that Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque would be three value changes, but I think we have to add Renaissance, which was secular in origin, surely, but clearly was important for religious art and architecture. In religious art, if you just take the Madonna and Child motif, we progress from the very hieratic Romanesque Sedes sapientiae to the more realistic madonna and child where we see the humanity of the figures. By the time we get to the Renaissance, we are seeing loving mothers with their children, fully in keeping with the more secular view. With the baroque we start to see the mater dolorosa imagery, where the humanity is demonstrated in profound expressions of grief. I’m not an art historian, but this seems clear to me.

      Thanks again for your considered ideas in response to our work. I struggled with this post for a few days and appreciate the time you took to discuss it.

  7. Thank you for this thought provoking post. It caused me to remember and reflect upon my now 21 year old son who used to sing happily to himself while playing with his legos and toy trains… a sublime memory, indeed. Of all of us, he seems to be the one with the greatest capacity for joy, even now, and that makes me wonder about the relationship of joy to genetics.

    • Thanks, Gabby, once again. If you haven’t read the chapter in Josephus, you really should. I only touched on the full family drama that he describes. It is great reading, great theater, and what a lesson in humanity.

  8. Thank you for making me think. The paradox of biblical characters continues to puzzle us. As for the origin of song, I plump for joy every time!

    How on earth did you take that last gorgeous picture of Chartres? Where were you standing.

    • Viv, PJ was in the galleries of the north transept when she took that shot. I have acrophobia and there was no way that I could have been standing on the edge like she was to get this shot!

  9. Beautiful story, analysis and related photos. Thank you.

    With reference to the Bible story of David and Absalom, David reflects and embodies God’s love for himself in his love for Absalom. He also learns what it’s like to have a beloved child cause disappointment (as in David’s behavior in the Bathsheba story where he breaks all the commandments within a short period of time!).

    Thank you for your enlightening comments on the Gothic and Romanesque and quotes from Abbott Suger. Just great.

    • We were a bit surprised at how many responses we got to this post, but it is very much appreciated. I like the idea of the mirroring of David and Absalom with God and Absalom. Rich material, no question.

  10. Your thought-provoking post elicited equally thoughtful comments from your avid followers. May I simply offer my sincerest compliment on the images, specially the capitals of the Basilique Ste Marie Madeleine! Jong-Soung

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