Testimony (Dennis Aubrey)


It is important that this post begins by quoting in its entirety my short lament from 2013. I hope that this post is comprehensible, because for the first time I write to ask for an answer.

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The Crack-up (June 2013)

“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.

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)

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The reason that I quoted this piece in its entirety is because something happened to me this year. As regular readers know, there was a long period of near-silence on this blog because I was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer in September 2017. It was a serious check to my system to directly face that mortality which I had always seen obliquely. I feared for myself and mostly I feared for PJ. I underwent a series of radiation treatments that ended in May 2018 and the oncologists felt that the treatment had killed the cancer. The treatment also destroyed my insides, and we always feared that the cancer might have spread to other parts of my body.

In December, I had a major regression that ended with two emergency surgeries, the second on Christmas Day. I despaired of ever getting well. In January, recovery began, and by February, I started feeling remarkably well. PJ and I started posting here three times a week, we began our podcast, prepared new exhibitions and planned our next trip to Europe to photograph our beloved churches. All of a sudden, I had more energy and enthusiasm than anytime in the past ten years. I felt at times almost manic.

In mid-March, I went as always to Columbus for my wellness treatments from a woman who has done amazing things to correct the damage done by the radiation. She lives there in Columbus, about an hour away. I would go to her home for treatment and then sometimes go to a Thai restaurant nearby for lunch. I knew the owner, a small Thai woman from Bangkok, by sight. She would take my order and serve the meal, but we never really talked. Just said hello, basically. On this day in March, she approached me, nervously and asked if she could talk. She was agitated and afraid, which made me wonder what we were going to talk about. She said “You will think I am crazy.” Of course my mental process was “Yes, I am going to think you’re crazy” but I said, “No, please sit down.” She sat across from me and looked at me, still afraid. She started by telling me that her name was Palm.

She said that she was a Buddhist all of her life but her best friend, who still lives in Bangkok, said that she had converted to Christianity and encouraged her to talk to this Christian God. Palm said that she did not know how to pray or talk to God. Her friend said just talk to him, he will answer back. A few days later, Palm did so. She tried to initiate a conversation with this unknown God and asked for help with her boyfriend. He was a Christian westerner who was drinking heavily. The next morning she told her him that she had prayed for him to stop drinking. The boyfriend broke down in tears. He had come to the decision that previous night that he needed to quit drinking. They wept together and their life changed immediately. Shortly after, they got married and started reading the Bible together. Palm was quite shocked at the the result of her prayer, and when she reflected on what had happened, she talked again to God and said, “You have done so much for me, is there something I can do for you?”

As she asked the question, the image of my face came to her mind and God told her to talk to me and tell me that my cancer was cured. She was afraid to do this – she did not know me and did not know how to approach me. God told her to trust Him and just talk to me.

She did so, fearfully, at her restaurant in a few days when I appeared. After telling me this, she waited silently and nervously for my response. I was, of course, in shock. I have struggled with belief and faith all of my adult life. And now a stranger came up to me and delivered a message that my cancer was cured. PJ and I talked about this immediately and she understood how disturbed I was. She helped me come to the realization that even if I cannot understand what happened, I can accept the phenomenon. It happened, that is incontrovertible. It was something I needed to process.

About ten days later, I had to go to California for work. I flew a Delta flight from Atlanta to Sacramento, a flight that would arrive about one in the morning. When I boarded the flight and took my seat, one of the flight attendants – a youngish blond woman – asked if I was okay. I said that I was fine. Later in the flight when she was serving the meal, she came up to my seat and again asked me if I was okay. Again, I told her that I was fine. Finally, about an hour before the flight landed, the cabin was dark and most of the passengers were asleep. She came up to me at my aisle seat, knelt down next to me and said, “I’ve been told to tell you that your cancer is cured. You will look back on this one day as a small bump in the road.”

Again, I was shocked and devastated. We talked together for a few minutes and she told me that God told her to give me this message.

I had met Palm a few times before our conversation, but I never told her about the cancer or even that I was ill. The flight attendant on Delta I had never met in my life. Two strangers came up to me within ten days of each other and told me that my cancer was cured. This was so intense that it was difficult to talk about. Beside PJ, I discussed it with a few close friends to try to understand what was happening – to try to get to the truth at the core of this experience. But whatever the truth was, I could not understand why God didn’t talk to me directly. Why did he use intermediaries? My sister Ann said that it was my father communicating to me. He knew that if God told me this directly I wouldn’t listen. I never listen. So my father said “Do something he can’t ignore.” There may be some truth in that. What is true that I have begun my conversations with God directly. And He still has not responded directly, but He has not been silent.

I never saw the flight attendant again, but periodically I go to the Thai restaurant and talk to Palm, who is unfailingly cheerful and happy to talk to me. One time she asked what I did and I showed her Via Lucis on my phone. She thought that was a wonderful thing to be doing. She said she did not go to churches, but thought that these were beautiful and that God could live there. The last time I visited, she asked if I had written about our conversation. I told her that I not, that it was too private and that it was still not settled in my mind. She looked me straight in the eyes and said “God wants you to.”

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

It is now a month later and still I had not figured out how to write about this. Last night I received an inquiry about photo licensing with a link to the image. It was the capital of “The Fall of Simon Magus” at Autun. I had forgotten the article and read it. Suddenly I knew exactly what to write. The result is before you now.

Note: if you are interested, here is a link to the original post. The comments at the bottom are very interesting and, as we have stated before, part of the ongoing conversation that is Via Lucis, an exchange that we love so much.

49 thoughts on “Testimony (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Your two seemingly coincidental meetings with strangers who appeared to know what you were going through brought to mind something a French friend once said to me when I told her about a coincidence in my life. ‘ Not a coincidence but ‘c’est la Providence.’ We tend not to talk about Providence in the English language. Perhaps we should do so.

    1. Elizabeth, I certainly don’t think of this as a coincidence. I once met an acquaintance from California at the airport in Tokyo, then in New York, and later in Paris. All in one year. This was someone I didn’t see more than once or twice a year in Los Angeles where we both lived! I think la Providence is a much better description, as you say.

      1. Lovely, thank you. “Why me?” I have experienced an enormous amount of grace (undeserved favor) and Providence in my life – not so dramatic as yours but still. My memoirs are entitled “Privilege and Providence.”

      2. I forgot to finish: To be able to do the work of beauty and thought you do for us on these pages etc. is a tremendous privilege for you. And equally are we privileged who have been given the time and opportunity to share your work. Thank you.

      3. Once again, thank you for your comments. The “Why Me” part is serious. I have a life-long friend who lives in Santa Barbara, California who has struggled with virulent cancers for more than five years. He has more need and he is more deserving. I feel that this grace should be his and not mine.

  2. This is a response to my friend Vincent Park who sent me a moving private message. The response he elicited follows:

    Vince,central to my consciousness is the certainty that faith without doubt is not faith but fanaticism. What use is faith if there is not doubt? Now I can add bewilderment to the mix. I am profoundly bewildered that my own searching and doubts would be answered in this fashion. I do not attend church, the name Jesus never appeared in any of these discussions, just the acknowledgment of this God touching me through others, particularly a small Thai Buddhist who started talking to her Christian friend’s God.

  3. It is hard to imagine God speaking to you any more directly than through those two women. But there is more to it than just telling you that your cancer is cured. That is good, but the true message that you have been given is that God is real and calls you.

    (Read Francis Schaeffer, especially ‘The God who is There’.)

    1. Graham, as you suspect, that is the conclusion that is dawning on me. The question that I have, so daunting and terrifying, is “Why?”

      When I was a young man, I decided to fast for no good reason other than to fast. For 9 days I did not eat or sleep. It was a time of confusion and disorientation. I do not know why I did it, and did not have any idea at the time. At the conclusion of this orgy of self denial, I sat on the edge of my bed, exhausted. I lifted up my hands and stared at them – they were smooth, unmarked, with no sign of use. At that moment my greatest fear in life was to die with hands like that – unused and unmarked by a life lived.

      1. There are angels in the architecture which you so lovingly portray. God’s grace is extended to us despite our unworthiness. Saul of Tarsus was on the road to Damascus when he was spoken to by a voice (the spirit of Christ) which said, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul was a devout Jew who was tormenting Christians. Because of this encounter he repented and became the most important instrument of God in spreading the news about Christ across the region.

      2. Graham, the story of Paul’s conversion has always moved me. In my post on the Pegasus, I end with “I always wanted to have my sign, my vision from God to guide me, but have never admitted to it; to be transfixed by light on the road to Damascus where others may see the light but not hear the voice. I want to be in that beatified state where I don’t take photographs, but create churches.”

  4. For the last 25 years I have pursued God. Leaving the trappings of Catholicism to join a small Church and bible studies. Asking questions and wrestling with God. Wondering why He “spoke” all the time in the Old Testament. I have longed for a burning bush in my yard. You have been so blessed, my friend. Good to share it.

  5. You mention that Palm says that God lives in the Churches you photograph. You have been a guest in God’s home so often, and now he is giving you a gift of faith. Go deeper!

    1. Kim as I said in the post, the conversations have begun. There is something in that, for sure. There is a place to put that doubt and fear and confusion. Thanks for your comment … it is such a wonderful thought.

  6. Thank you for writing this, Dennis. I can see why you are confused and bewildered, but on the other hand, you have created so much enjoyment for others by sharing images of these beautiful places (not to mention all the work you and PJ put into travelling to them and photographing them). Perhaps these mysterious events are a sort of thank-you for that work.

    1. Fiona, so nice to hear from you again. If this gift is in thanks for the work we do, all I can feel is that it is overwhelmingly generous. I have always loved doing the work of Via Lucis, photographing, writing, and researching. These I anticipated somewhat when we began. Two things have resulted that i never expected. Having these conversations with those who read our posts or listen to our podcasts and – most surprising – having a place to put these lifelong musings about doubts and searching.

  7. Dennis, in my experience, true faith has more in common with anguished despair than with glib certainty. I suspect you may have not considered yourself a person of faith because you, like so many of us, have been presented with shallow facades of faith masquerading as the real thing. At the heart of St. John of the Cross’s message is that God brings us into the dark night to wean us off infantile, self-aggrandizing fantasies of God, so we can learn to surrender ourselves to the mysterious immensity of the true God of love.
    This post is very moving to me. I am grateful for your restored health, and that God should see fit to communicate to you so directly.

    1. Carl, welcome back. I quote C.S. Lewis is another post from 2012, “My Name is Legion”. He wrote “Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” A Grief Observed (1961). Yes to the mysterious immensity of God.

      1. One more thought on your post. I have had the grace of some remarkable direct experiences of God, but they are few and very far between. But I have learned that God speaks to us all the time, embedded in reality. In the beauty of the world (I was very moved by your recounting of Pere Surchamp’s delight in the beauty of the clouds during your final visit). In the suffering of others, summoning us to love and mercy, and in the humbling mystery of our own sufferings. In the spectacles of injustice, summoning us to build a more loving society. In the eyes of those who look on us with love, helplessly communicating God’s infinite love. Reality is the burning bush, being is on fire with the manifestation of God.

  8. Miracles happen all around us, and usually, we are unaware of them. For whatever reason, you have been given a gift, and it was meant for you to share that gift. Now, your life will be forever changed by these women. I’m reminded of the cats in nursing homes who can sense impending death. Does death have a scent that these animals can detect, or is something much more profound happening there? We may never know, but when two unrelated people are compelled to approach you in the way they did, something very deep is going on, and I can’t wait to learn what happens next. Thank you.

    1. Vann, there is most definitely something stirring. At the wonderful hotel Le Pont de L’Ouysse near Rocamador, there is a walk through the valley. In that valley, right in the middle of the road is a clear deep pool of water called “le Font de Truffe”. The water is clear to the very depths and divers often explore those depths. For me, this moment is like sensing movement below me in that deep pool of water. The water is clear and I see into the depths; there is something moving but I just can’t see.

      Sometimes I am walking on the street or in a market and I see a stranger walking toward me. I stiffen involuntarily, wondering if this is another encounter.

  9. I understand the feelings you so beautifully expressed. First and foremost, you ask, “Why me?” The answer is that God loves you, has always and will always love you with the purest and most profound love in the universe. He bestows this love on each and every one of us whether or not we ever realize it. He graces us because we are His children. Secondly, I have found that God does indeed talk to us, yet most of the time it comes from others who say things we need to hear – if you hear basically the same something from two or more people who you know have not spoken to each other, that is God talking to you. That has happened over and over in my life. Listen, accept and thank Him. Thirdly, you chose to document the places constructed for His glory and worship, places that are stunning from many points of view, filled with history, filled with prayer and in giving visually beautiful images continue that quest to give glory to Him. I too am a cancer survivor, I never questioned that I would beat the disease, I just “knew”. I think we have become so inured to the “reality” we see and have presented to us we forget that there are things that are mysterious, that leave us with doubt and questions about our existance and beliefs. Those mysterious, spiritual questions we all have need to be openly spoken about, we need to talk about God, and we need to stop worrying about what others think of us for that openness.
    I believe in accepting the work God gave you, that at the time you might not have even realized was from HIm, you are doing work He wants done, He wants his many churches shown to those who may never see them in person, to see the beauty made by human hands. He wants us to remember that He does direct us. We may never hear that still, small voice for ourselves, but he does speak to us in many ways. The work you and PJ do is part of that work. He needs you to continue doing it. As a wise old priest I knew once told me, “all you can do is make a leap of faith”.
    You made that leap with starting Via Lucis.

    1. Aquila, at 3:40 in the morning, I think about what you wrote. Nothing could be more hopeful than your paragraph about the work that we do being part of a larger plan. Thanks.

      1. We are so absorbed in the immediate things of our lives we don’t even realize how God moves us and we respond without conscious thought. We “feel” the need to do things so we do them. It is the kind of acceptance we don’t even know we use.

    1. Thank you. I am pretty stunned by the number and intensity of the commentary. I am flattered a bit, but most humbled by the depth of feeling that is showing up on these pages.

  10. Yet another surprising blog post from you. I liked the comment from Pelerin about the French response to meetings like yours: ‘c’est la Providence’. I’ve translated a lot of 19th-century French stories where the word Providence appears. It’s not simple to translate into English. Sometimes I simply write Providence, but am never sure that an English-language reader would get it. But it’s perfect, and can even be better than saying ‘God’ when seeking to explain a problem inexplicably solved. It represents the One who provides when we can’t provide for ourselves.

    1. Trish, when I see your name on a comment, it is like seeing an old friend approaching down the street. We have corresponded on these pages for seven or eight years, right? I love your comment about the One who provides when we can’t provide for ourselves. Thanks. It is wonderful thinking of you in Australia dreaming of the Pyrenees that we both love so much.

      1. Seven years. I started blogging in January 2012 and by May I was following Via Lucis. It’s the only blog I’m still following from those days.

  11. I am very glad to hear that you are fully recovered Dennis. God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
    Perhaps he/she is thanking you for bringing so much of his/her light into so many of our lives through Via Lucis.

  12. Dennis,

    Again and again, you speak not only to the facts of your churches, but the feel of the buildings and what they represent. The faith. By whatever name, however it ultimately is understood, or not understood,..I think it’s what Karen Armstrong would call ” an affinity for the unknown.”

    Ineffable.!

    Thanks to you and your friends for sharing….

    Judy

    1. Judy, thank you so much. It is the ineffable sensation of that spirituality that drives both PJ and me when we photograph. We are still hoping to come to San Francisco and photograph the magnificent Grace Cathedral.

  13. I was deeply touched by your comment Dennis that you want to believe but cannot find it. You have visited so many churches which have been examples of what Faith has produced over the years that this surprised me.
    I will soon be in Lourdes where it has been said that the veil between Heaven and Earth is at its thinnest. On my first visit in 2005 seeing the Faith of those present, the sick, the handicapped and the dying and watching the devotion of those who helped them tirelessly opened my eyes to the reality of the existence of God who I had believed in before but had had difficulty experiencing. There was so much happiness visible on the faces of those who were suffering in life. I have returned each year since that first visit and promise I will remember you there in August.
    On your next visit to France do try and find a church which holds Adoration. The silence before the Blessed Sacrament there is never empty I assure you.

  14. Dennis,
    You are blessed. And even before you understood you are blessed you chose to share your blessing with people you didn’t know, thinking you were sharing your work rather than your blessing. We recognized your work as a blessing and told you so! It took these two women who knew nothing of your work to convince you that there is a dimension to your work that goes beyond photographs, books, exhibits and podcasts. That blessing manifests itself in us who learn from your work. Thank God for this gift and the continuing ability to share it with all of us.

  15. This is an amazing post. I get so much email every day that I don’t always read what’s not directly work-related. I was going back over the past week’s emails to make certain I didn’t miss anything and clicked on it to see what it was about. I cant’ really explain why but I needed to read this today. Not last week. Today. Like you, I don’t seem to ever “hear” things directly. But this year I have had things happen at exactly the moments when I feel this emptiness the most. Not as direct as that!!! But this was one of them for me, for a variety of reasons that wouldn’t mean much to anyone else. Maybe that’s why you felt that you should write it.

  16. i am devastated to hear Dennis has passed on..i know he has received his answer as Christ held him in his arms as his spirit rose up to him. in grief for the past 3-4 yrs i have had a very hard time listening to the spirit, but that was me, in pain and so disabled i couldn’t hear the voices..i thought..but,they were still there holding me when i thought i had fallen to my deepest depths..the tearing of my soul is still there , the sadness still there..sometimes the fear is so great that no one is there or here for me…but i have to depend on hope..i reach out to others to be kinder n have a wee bit more courage as my goal…as i try to be kinder to face my own ending on this mortal earth..but as my belief/faith resounds in my heart..i will see my Father ,Christ,the Holy Spirit and my love ,my eternal husband Dave..the glory of my family past n animals past..to look fwd to joy in the eternities. i wish this for you and Dennis..my kindest condolences..love kathryn molloy lawler

  17. This is such a fine remembrance. Thank you for sharing it with all of us who have been blessed by Dennis.

    These last few days one image stays front and center in my memories of Dennis. It’s the face of a shy Amish girl standing behind the roadside vegetable stand who seemed to have become increasingly familiar with this patient ‘English’ customer. That scene shone a light on the thing I will treasure most: his tender respect and kindness. Kay and I send our condolences to PJ and all the Aubrey family.

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