Dennis Aubrey – Via Lucis

Light through a window of the Basilica of the Madeline in Vézelay, France – Photo by Dennis Aubrey

Reason only partially explains why and how some people become friends.

“Reason, you’ll always be half blind,” said Mechtild of Magdeburg, the 13th century German mystic beguine, author of The Flowing Light of Divinity.

Friendship

There are reasons that partially explain why and how Dennis Aubrey and I became friends. Cyberspace is how we met. I can’t recall which of us started the conversation. I do know that finding Via Lucis: Photography of Religious Architecture was like a window opening a dark room to light and air. Why one of us reached out to comment on the other’s site had its reasons. Each of us was wading in the same waters, asking the same questions. Dennis did it by means of professional photography and commentaries on Romanesque and Gothic churches in France and Germany. I did it through commentaries on faith and public life.

Wading in the same waters differently led us to each other. Although I have always loved beautiful architecture, I knew little about Romanesque and could not have cared less about the Medieval period when the Romanesque cathedrals, basilicas, and churches were built. These structures were the waters in which Dennis sought and found light. The ancient texts of Hebrew and Christian scripture were the waters in which I did the same. Discovering each other wading in the same waters differently led to an eight year friendship in person at Dennis and PJ’s new home in Ohio, by internet comments on each other’s work, and the kind of phone calls peculiar to close friends.

Last Saturday I called Dennis to discuss his latest posted on Via Lucis. There was no answer. Perhaps I’d called too early. Perhaps he and PJ were in France. Perhaps they had driven to the Amish farm stand where the Amish adolescent sold them organic vegetables or had gone to the Amish auction. Or maybe Dennis had silences his cell phone. I left a voicemail. An hour later at 9:43 A.M. the return call came from Dennis’s cell phone number. But the voice was not Dennis’s, it was PJ’s. “I can’t believe you called,” she said. “Dennis died last night.” Our worlds suddenly became smaller.

As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? [Psalm 42:1-2 KJV]

Panting after the water brooks

Faith takes many forms. Which forms, if any, are grounded in reality is a lifelong quest for some of us. A cynic may dismiss all forms of faith as ungrounded — floating in the clouds of human imagination and illusion. Yet there remain those murmurings from within or the majesty one sees outside the self in nature or great works of art. Dennis and PJ posted an an announcement and invitation to a new exhibit July 29 bearing the artists’ witness to imagination: “This exhibition is not about the iconographic programs of medieval historiated capitals, but rather an appreciation of the human imagination that created these sculptures.”

The search for authentic faith — trust in something greater than the self and all that we can see, feel, taste, smell, or touch — is not a straight line. It spirals between opposites. We disbelieve and believe. We believe and disbelieve. We fall and we get back up. We gasp for air and we gasp in awe. We turn our backs on the past and embrace it again as though we’d never met it.

When shall I come before Thee?

St. Augustine wrote that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee. Like faith itself, what the Hebrew psalmist called the soul’s ‘panting’’ and Augustine called ‘restlessness’, takes many forms. Sometimes, as in the parable of the lost son, it takes us far away from the water brooks; sometimes it goes numb; sometimes it draws us closer to the water brooks. But even there by the side of the water brooks, like Narcissus, we refuse to drink.

Dennis was on a lifelong search for what the psalmist likened to a deer thirsty for water — longing for union with the Ineffable that was shrouded in mystery but given to his eyes in a shaft of light reflecting on a stone wall at dusk, or on one of the capitals the craftsmen of a by-gone time invited his imagination and research. He shared in photography and commentary moments where his panting desire for God was quenched by the stones themselves: the song of Mary Magdeline echoing from the stones of the Basilique Sainte Madeleine in Vézelay, and the sounds of uncluttered simplicity and beauty of Gregorian chant that calls us to remember who and Whose we are.

His last words on Via Lucis were posted in reply to his latest and most personal post. “Judy, thank you so much. It is the ineffable sensation of that spirituality that drives both PJ and me when we photograph.”

Deep calleth unto deep at the sound of Thy waterspouts.

Dennis was joyful. He was attuned to the calling of the Deep. He was reverent before the abyss, the yawning hole in existence itself, the nights haunted by the 3:00 o’clock in the morning questions that beg for answers. He shared those times of wrestling with PJ and with Rudy, the cat on his lap in whom he took such delight, and, sometimes, with readers of Via Lucis. I could only say “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Opening one of his posts on Via Lucis was like meeting the twin brother I didn’t know I had. No matter how deep into the Deep his blog posts would go, there was always the echo of the Divine calling to him from the depths.

My soul is cast down within me.

Dennis had an eye for beauty and the camera and words to reflect what he saw when he took the shot. It was a rare gift. The antidote to sleepless nights was a day with PJ in a Romanesque Basilica like the one at Vezelay, waiting for the precise moment when the light and shadows would be just right. The beauty was already there in the stone walls and buttresses, the choirs, chancels, the side chapels built to the glory of God by artisans whose names were forever lost to future generations. I think Dennis saw himself as one of them, creating works of art that drew attention not to himself but to his subject.

Only wonder comprehends anything

Looking back after he has left us, it occurs to me that Dennis’s faith was of the Eastern (Byzantine) tradition of Christianity much more than of the Western (Roman) tradition in which he was raised. Dennis could well have spoken the words of Gregory of Nyssa.

“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”

He was horrified by what had been done in the name of Christ: the Crusades that swept through the world like a wild fire, destroying towns and villages, and disobedient monastic sites because their concepts were not right.

The kind of thing that sunshine is

Concepts are ‘cataphatic’; wonder is ‘apophatic’. Cataphatic religion is logical — it lives in the head. Apophatic spirituality is awake to what cannot be reduced to a concept. Dennis’s artistic spirit was apophatic — awake to the beauty all around him and cringing at human cruelty produced by the idols in our heads.

Just as many questions might be started for debate among people sitting up at night as to the kind of thing that sunshine is, and then the simple appearing of it in all its beauty would render any verbal description superfluous, so every calculation that tries to arrive conjecturally at the future state will be reduced to nothingness by the object of our hopes, when it comes upon us.

Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-c.395 CE)

Dennis’s writing respected the ineffability of sunshine with words that helped us see the beauty his apophatic eyes had seen.

“I shall yet praise him”

The poetry of Psalm 42 was akin to the poetic imagination by which the Hebrew prophet Isaiah described his experience in the temple:

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.

Isaiah 6:1-4 (KJV)

In the 20th and 21st centuries Isaiah’s temple was a Romanesque church Dennis and PJ experienced in ways best expressed in poetic prose and photograph. Their art brought to life our sense of the seraphim soaring above the throne of the Holy One. Those gasping for air found ourselves gasping with awe at what the eye of this gentle soul had seen. Sometimes the Ineffable takes our breath away and drops us to our knees in an empty church where the sun still shines its light on the stones, the stones cry out, and the Magdeleine still sings.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 15, 2019.

The Green Man

Every generation tends to think of itself as superior to its predecessors. Ours is no different. Sometimes we’re right. Often, we’re wrong. We ignore or don’t know history.

Take, for example, the consciousness of green and climate change – the discovery, or is it the re-discovery, of nature as the context of human life. We tend to think it’s a new consciousness that sets aside the longer consciousness by which the human race justified ravaging the earth.

The Green Man in Clermont-Ferrant, Photo by Dennis Aubrey, Via Lucis Photography

The Green Man in Clermont-Ferrant, Photo by Dennis Aubrey, Via Lucis Photography

But, then, along comes the forgotten Green Man of Romanesque churches build in the Medieval Period, one version of which is featured in Dennis Aubrey’s post “A Green Man in Clermont-Ferrand” on Via Lucis Photography of Religious Architecture.

I turn to Via Lucis whenever I feel the need to get out of my skin, to shed the ignorant arrogance of the 21st Century presumption of progress and superiority.

The whole human story is captured in the various Medieval renderings of The Green Man, the human race fatally mis-perceived as “man over nature” and properly conceived as “man within nature”. 

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 13, 2016

Death in the Wood of Ephraim (Dennis Aubrey)

Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis posted Death in the Wood of Ephraim (Dennis Aubrey), a one-of-a-kind reflection on the biblical David and the death of his slain rebellious son Absalom.

Dennis and PJ continually bring to the internet something very special: their thoughtful interplay between their photographs of Romanesque and Gothic architecture and commentaries on what they experience while photographing them and researching their histories.

Via Lucis is an example of the spiritual and artistic integration of external (visible) and internal (invisible) reality. This morning I left this comment for Dennis:

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. Friedrich Schleiermacher 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

If you go to Dennis’s site, please take a moment to comment. Or you may leave a comment here.

The Estate Sale and a Thousand Years

Last Saturday I bit my tongue and went to an estate sale in hopes of buying a patio set. It was sold by the time I got there. Here and gone in a heartbeat.The rest of the stuff, except for the men’s suits (wrong size) was junk.

The memory that lasts is the house itself. Highland Park is a lovely neighborhood in Saint Paul. Beautifully constructed old Tudor homes on a tree-lined street…except for…the house with the estate sale…a lavishly done white retro Art Deco house…plopped down like a fly on top of a French Soufflé.

I blurted out to another shopper, “This place is really strange.”  “Yes!” she said. “What were they thinking?”

Right then I thought of the ongoing conversation with Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis Photography about the Romanesque and Gothic churches that still inspire reverence and awe eight centuries after they were built.

Dennis: “One of the wonderful things about these [Gothic and Romanesque] churches was that they took so long to construct and design that the intellectual currents that drove the builders were deep and powerful, not short, erratic eddies of fashion.”

Dennis had posted a question about a contemporary artistic installation at the Church of Saint Hilaire in France.  Would the newly created installation at the Church of St. Hilaire stand the test of  time. Might it also come from sources that are “deep and powerful, not short, erratic eddies of fashion”? Would it stand the test of time as compared with Gothic and Romanesque structures with their high vault ceilings that lift our eyes and hearts to something else for which we human beings long?  I had shared with Dennis that I find most contemporary church architecture banal and uninspiring.

I wrote to Dennis: “The culture of individualism is NOT Romanesque or Gothic where the glory is directed away from the individual, where the individual gets to feel…well…very small, humble, rather insignificant in the best way. I, too, see wonderful works of contemporary architecture, and I hope I’m not just being a cranky old man here. The comment about banality is not about those magnificent creations but rather about what I believe is the prevailing dumbing down of our time that leaves us bereft of awe, the sense of grandeur, wonder, or humility [one feels in Gothic and Romanesque spaces]. There’s a flattening, a leveling of existence itself to human proportions. The belief in species superiority displaces everything that suggests otherwise. My comments, I think you know, are not so much about the new installation at St. Hilaire – which, in and of itself, strikes me as quite lovely – but more about the age in which we live where nothing much seems to be of lasting value.”

Dennis: “Gordon, I think it was a form of this ‘prevailing dumbing down’ that inspired us to these churches in the first place. I became increasingly disturbed by rampant      commercialism, when the point of commerce is to create obsolescence so that goods can be replaced whether necessary or not. Fashion and styling is substituted for value. PJ and I wanted to concentrate on something that had intrinsic value, and when we began exploring these churches in  2006, we found that something.

“One of my favorite books of all time is Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye [published in 1953]. In it, there is a speech by the wealthy Harlan Potter:

“’You can’t expect quality from people whose lives are a subjection to a lack of quality. You can’t have quality with mass production. You don’t want it because it lasts too long. So you substitute styling, which is a commercial swindle intended to produce artificial obsolescence. Mass production couldn’t sell its goods next year unless it made what it sold this year look unfashionable a year from now. We have the whitest kitchens and the most shining bathrooms in the world. But in the lovely white kitchen the average American housewife can’t produce a meal fit to eat, and the lovely shining bathroom is mostly a receptacle for deodorants, laxatives, sleeping pills, and the products of that confidence racket called the cosmetic industry. We make the finest packages in the world, Mr. Marlowe. The stuff inside is mostly junk.’”

Well, the kitchens today aren’t just for the “housewives,” thank goodness, but the rest hit too close to home.

I think of the height of the Gothic arches and the things that will last when someone says at my departure “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes” and holds an estate sale.

I sit down with the Scriptures for something longer lasting than deodorants, laxatives, sleeping pills, or a plastic patio set.  I want something like the lasting value of the Gothic and Romanesque architecture “took so long to construct and design,” where “the intellectual currents that drove the builders were deep and powerful, not short, erratic eddies of fashion.”

I’m drawn to the English translation that preserves the clear distinction between the Divine and the human – the use of the archaic word “thou” for God. Like the vaults of St. Hilaire, the language lifts up my heart from the flat banality of our self-preoccupations and species grandiosity.

Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey
Basilique Saint Hilaire, Poitiers (Vienne) Photo by PJ McKey

“O Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

When I look at the work of thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,

The moon and the stars which thou hast established;

What is man that thou art mindful of him…?

 

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8)

 

“Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.

Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world,

From everlasting to everlasting thou art God.

Thou turnest man back to the dust, and sayest, ‘Turn back, O children of men!’

For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.” (Psalm 90:1-4)