Out of the sanctuary and into the light

James Turrell’s groundbreaking installation of light at the Guggenheim has closed. Even without seeing it, it has opened my heart a bit further, by one more increment cleansing the doors of my perception, allowing me another, perhaps deeper glimpse of the Infinite. “Instead of depicting light,” Turrell said in an interview, “I wanted the work to be light.” And so it was, apparently.

S. Brent Plate, visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College, wrote of the installation that it “presents its viewers with light in myriad dazzling forms. His colorful artworks challenge our perceptions, our sense of space, and our place within that strangely lit environment. Things are not what they appear. As we get our bearings, God comes into focus.”

Turrell’s intent, and Plate’s description of what he achieved, reminded me of the experience Walt Whitman described when he grew “tired and sick” of a lecture about astronomy, “Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, / Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars” (“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”).

It seems I’ve spent the best part of my life lecturing about astronomy, preaching to one congregation or another about the experience of seeing the reign of God that Jesus said is spread out upon the earth (Gospel of Thomas 113), and feeling that people don’t see any more clearly or frequently than they did in his day. There are those who listen to lectures about astronomy, and there are those who look up in perfect silence at the stars.

I need to get out more. And to trust that maybe the best part of my life is still ahead of me.

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