The Crack Up (Dennis Aubrey)

“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

The Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross has become the sine qua non of mystic reverie and I hesitate to reference it. The book is one of those mysterious texts that almost opens itself late at night when I feel a certain emptiness inside. John wrote the book to confront his own anguish when he was not able to feel the presence of God. He was in prison at the time – incarcerated by his fellow Carmelite brothers who opposed reforms that John supported.

Capital, Église Notre-Dame, Bois-Sainte-Marie  (Saône-et-Loire)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Capital, Église Notre-Dame, Bois-Sainte-Marie (Saône-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

The Christian faith is built on the Presence of God – the moving finger, burning bush, pillar of fire, and even the Son of God himself have been there to warn and guide. This Presence marks the Believer.

Belshazzar's Feast, Rembrandt c. 1635, Image in the Public Domain
Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt c. 1635, Image in the Public Domain

C.S. Lewis wrote in “A Grief Observed”. “But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” The dark night of John of the Cross was this total silence, the loss of Presence, and the terrifying emptiness of prayer. This was the challenge to his faith that prompted his meditations.

Detail, Refectory tympanum, Abbaye de Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Detail, Refectory tympanum, Abbaye de Saint Aubin, Angers (Maine-et-Loire) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

In my work, in my art, I feel the Presence, or at least the echo of the Presence. But in my real life, my long late nights, there is only silence. But actually not quite silence, something else. A voice in my heart says “See, there is only Nothing. There is no God.” But if it were only a voice that my ears might hear, not just my heart! It would be a presence of some kind, even the presence of a demon, but that might imply that God exists.

Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d'Or)  Photo by Dennis Aubrey
Fall of Simon Magus, Cathédrale Saint Lazare, Autun (Côte-d’Or) Photo by Dennis Aubrey

How I would love to wrestle with an angel instead of the silence. I want to believe, but I can’t find it. I need it – I feel that – but I can’t find it.

La Vision après le Sermon (La Lutte de Jacob avec l’Ange) Paul Gauguin (Image in the Public Domain)
La Vision après le Sermon (La Lutte de Jacob avec l’Ange) Paul Gauguin (Image in the Public Domain)

18 thoughts on “The Crack Up (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. I agree with the writer above. Great images, very brief but very honest, apt and to the point and personal post. You spend so much time with this amazing religious images Dennis, and commentate on them so beautifully, naturally it is interesting for your readers to hear some of your personal thoughts on spiritual matters. On the 2 paintings featured: I love the Rembrandt, and that Jacob wrestling the angel, by Gaugin is probably his best work, so far superior to the later, more loosely-painted, sometimes creepy pictures of very young women he painted later from Tahiti. In purely formal terms, the flat red background (in Jacob and the Angel) also had a huge impact on his followers and contemporaries in Brittany and Paris, led to very strains of post-impressionism, symbolism, Pont Aven school, and so on. Probably the best thing he ever painted really. Great post Dennis. A pleasure to visit, as always.

  2. Funny that you should hear nothing when so many since the dawn of time have heard something. As for me, I don’t actually hear anything, but prayer results in a change in circumstances or an indication of which way to turn. There have been a few times when God has been silent despite my requests for His intervention, but the silence didn’t last long. He soon let me know He is still there and listening.

  3. Because we are thinking apes we are programmed to want to understand everything. We want to know The Truth about everything. But because there are questions that our study of the real world cannot yet answer, we invent our own surreal explanations. Then we try very hard to believe them, even if, deep down, we know they are just our imagination trying to fill in the gaps in our understanding.

    The number of different invented supernatural explanations throughout human history have been, and continue to be, legion. None of them are true, even though the artistic expressions of these various inventions share so many similarities. All of the wonderful religious art and architecture that so fascinates us is a desperate, and often very eloquent, attempt by believers to convince themselves that what they had been taught to believe in, whatever it was, was true.

    In your very sensitive work, in your own art, you feel, as I do, the longing of other artists, the anguish of your fellow seekers after some sort of truth beyond knowledge. It is not the presence of any of their imagined gods that you feel. It is your human response to the wonderful work of other artists, a sublimely beautiful shared illusion.

    Thank you for sharing your very rational inability to believe, although what’s left is not ‘Nothing’, as you say. Life itself is a really awesome Something.

    1. Peter, thanks for this. I know that I am susceptible to “a sublimely beautiful shared illusion” but perhaps there are traces of more in these churches. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a wonderful short story called “The Witness” in which he writes “In a stable that stands almost within the shadow of the new stone church a gray-eyed, gray-bearded man, stretched out amid the odors of the animals, humbly seeks death as one seeks for sleep.” This was the last man to have witnessed the ancient Anglo-Saxon religious rituals and Borges says “Before daybreak he will die, and with him will die – never to come back again – the final first-hand images of heathen rites. When this Saxon is gone, the world will be a little poorer.” He goes on to wonder what will remain after he dies, “what poignant or worthless memory will be lost to the world?”

      Perhaps we are wondering the same things, Peter. Borges’ old man knew, as a child, the face of Woden. What did I know?

      1. Since my father died I have mourned, not just the loss of his presence, but the unrecoverable loss of all that he knew, which was considerable, and the sudden extinguishing of that, like the death of Borges’ old Saxon, seems such a sad waste.

        The reflexive knowledge about the value of what we ourselves know is why we want there to be more permanence somewhere, some continuation of ourselves in some form, some endlessness beyond a mere brute struggle for survival during our short lives. The artists who built and adorned these old places we love so much lived much harsher lives than we do today, and in their work we can see that same yearning for some comfort against the knowledge of imminent obliteration, some assurance of a more permanent reality that makes the briefness of their lives less pointless.

        All of us, at some point in our lives, have shared that hope. Some of us have resigned ourselves to accepting that although it’s a seductive fantasy, it’s still a fantasy.

      2. Peter, your reply sparked an interesting train of thought. My reference to Borges’ Saxon was not about myself, although I did wonder what would be missed when I am gone. What you say is true and I recognize it as such, but I was referring to what was lost in the past, by those who built the churches. We see the traces of who and what they were and they were not exactly like us. They believed in a different way and it wasn’t mere superstition.

        Surely history teaches us that people were always people, and that they were always moved by the same forces that move us. But all of this was filtered by what a people thought, believed and understood of the world. We are the only species of which I am aware that has this characteristic. If there exists what Yeats called the spiritus mundi – if our thoughts touch some single vast intelligence – I would like to think that the world of the medieval church was one of those vast images that emerged to speak to us.

        After this comment I will surely write a post on Yeats and “The Second Coming.” Thanks as always for these thoughts.

  4. I too spend many nights in the silence…waiting to hear, or sense, of feel or something…God, the divine, by whatever name.
    I think it is that we want some palpable contact with the eternal that we feel so abandoned. We wish to be comforted that there it that presence, that there is something greater than us that cares about us.
    Perhaps we need to stumble around in that silence, need the feeling of nothing there.

    “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine;
    Domine, exaudi vocem meam. Fiant aures tuæ intendentes
    in vocem deprecationis meæ.”
    Psalm 129 – Vulgate

    In those deep silences I have only my own inner voice, which I’ve learned to ignore, to try and listen to my heart instead.

    What it comes down to, for me, at least, is that, God does exist, God is the love I have for others, the love they have for me, the things that bring me joy, that move me, that fulfill my spirit. You know God, Mr. Aubrey, it is obvious in your vision, your work, your writing, your sharing here with us.

    I would recommend listening to the Berliner Messe by Arvo Pärt, or perhaps his De Profundis, during one of those deep silent nights. If nothing else, the beauty is worth the hearing.

    1. Aquila, I just spent some time listening to Arvo Pärt at your recommendation. Beautiful music – and as you say, “the beauty is worth the hearing.” Thank you so much for this, and for the kindness of your words. As for the long dark nights, we continue to struggle.

      1. Then, there is the comfort of knowing we do not struggle alone. I often come and read a post, or just look at your marvelous photos and rest in the beauty of both.

  5. Dennis, I come late to this post, sitting alone in the dark with the first cup of coffee. This is so powerful in every way.

    “How I would love to wrestle with an angel instead of the silence” prompts me to reply, “Perhaps, for some of us, silence IS the angel that throws our hip out of joint.” I felt called to the ministry after a summer in the north Philadelphia “ghetto,” as we called it then, in which the silence to the question “Why?” was deafening. My good intentions as a 19 year old — a suburban white boy making the hour trip on public transportation to and from Corinthian Avenue — made no discernible difference to “the Brothers of Opal Street” with whom I had spent every afternoon for two months. The day I stumbled upon them at the beginning of a “do-good” church outreach internship, Rocky, Corky, Frankie, Brother Boy, and four others who had done time in the state penitentiary a few blocks away, were sitting on wood c
    rates passing a jug around the circle in the middle of Opal Street. The day I left them to return to college, the scene on Opal Street was no different, but I began a long journey into the darkness of silence.

    My last day with them, they wanted to “have a little talk” before I left. They wanted to say goodbye and wish me well. But there was more. MUCH more. “You’re going back to your college. We’re going nowhere. We’re just a bunch junkies and drunks. We don’t want you to come back here. You go home to your people and change things there. It’s the only way the kids here will ever have a chance.” As I have thought about that 15 minutes, they were speaking no only for themselves. In their commission to go away was the Voice that set before me my life calling.

    Many years later I received a phone call inviting me to lead the Legal Rights Center, Inc., a criminal and juvenile defense law firm founded by the American Indian Movement and African-American activists in Minneapolis. At the time the phone call came, I was grasping at straws. No job. No prospects of work after a very public resignation from my post as senior minister of a nationally-known “tall steeple” Presbyterian church. Then the phone call came inviting me to consider being the Legal Rights Center’s interim executive director. The six-month term as interim became a seven year presence with the likes of the Brothers of Opal Street. And, Peter Heegaard’s voice over the telephone returned me to the commissioning on Opal Street. Sometimes God speaks differently but in our own tongue.

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