This remembrance of Dennis Aubrey, written by Dennis’s brother for Via Lucis, touches the heart and soul, and the expansive brilliance known by those whose lives have been deepened and enriched by him. There is opportunity to comment or leave your condolences for PJ and members of PJ and Dennis’s family.
It is with infinite sadness that I must tell you that Dennis passed away suddenly last Friday. I write this on behalf of his wife and partner, PJ.
With his passing, Dennis leaves a gaping abyss in our lives. He was a man larger than life, zestful in his embrace of all that life offered. Readers of this blog enjoyed the excellence of PJ and Dennis’s photographic art, and the enlightening and entertaining musings that accompanied those featured photographs.
The power of Dennis’s writing derived from his encyclopedic brain: he brought his vastly read knowledge to every subject he wrote about, whether history, or philosophy, religion or geometry, music or poetry. Via Lucis isn’t simply a photography blog. It isn’t simply an art and architecture blog. It is a brief—and intriguing—glimpse into the mind of one of the artists who brings these Romanesque churches to life through photograph and word.
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.
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.
Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis became a friend after we found each other’s work through the web. As he has many times before, Dennis has spoken for me.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
Psalm 137:1-4 (King James Version)
When I lived in Los Angeles from 1972 to 2000, the city was filled with men and women who lived and died on the streets. It seemed an inevitable part of urban life, where displaced humanity would collect in the hidden corners of our cities. Facilities for the mentally ill had closed, prices for homes had accelerated and more people lost their ability to own or even rent. I knew what was happening in the rust…
Thomas and Peter are this writer’s favorite apostles. Thomas because he refused to believe unless he saw with his own eyes and confirmed “an idle tale” with his own hand; Peter because he was impetuous, quickly stepping onto the sea at Christ’s invitation only to plunge like a stone when his faith failed him.
It was through these two very different eyes — one of Thomas, the other of Peter — that we viewed Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey’s Two Churches in the Cliffs on Via Lucis this morning.
The two churches on the cliffs appeared differently to these different eyes of faith.
Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey
The apse of Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption with its narrow vertical window immediately elicited a Petrine sense of immediate belief. It held Peter’s eye for a long time.
Perhaps it was held by the yearning for the vertical, that which transcends the horizontal banality to which a mass culture has shrunk everything not of its own making. Perhaps it is the delight of hope from above that trembles the spine of the despairing. Or perhaps it’s the beauty of the apse’s proportionality, the genius of the central Christian symbol: the intersection of the horizontal by the more gracious vertical — the horror of human cruelty interrupted and transformed by the unexpected shaft of light and the still small Voice heard by Elijah in his cave. Or all of the above and more.
But Thomas is never far beyond Peter. It is the Thomas in us that asks the hard questions, insists on separating fact from fiction, reality from illusion, good faith from what Sartre called bad faith. It is Thomas whose faith couldn’t make itself piggy-back on the shoulders of the other apostles’ story of having met the risen Christ. It was Thomas who insisted that he see for himself the evidence for “seeing” or believing in hope beyond the horror of the suffering, cruelty, and death his eyes had seen days before on the Hill of Skulls.
Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence ) Photo by ICE-Marseille, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Which brings us to the second church on the cliff — the story ofthe stillborn in Via Lucis‘ post that awakens Thomas’ skepticism.
“Notre Dame de Beauvoir was known for its suscitations – stillborn children were carried up and baptised there, at which time they would immediately come to life and would be granted a place in heaven. This was a well-known phenomenon in the region and also known at two neighboring churches.”
While the thought of stillborn children immediately coming back to life appeals to Peter, it offends Thomas as an idle tale for the feeble of heart and mind. It’s either true or it’s not. And, if it’s true, what kind of cruel God would deny the same to the stillborn children and grieving parents who have not carried them up the steps to Notre Dame de Beauvoir for suscitations? Or is the tradition of Notre Dame de Beauvoir a sacred story of love and hope beyond what the empiricist eye of Thomas can see?
We have a left brain and a right brain, and sometimes it is true that never the twain shall meet. Likewise, faith has two eyes: Peter the believer, and Thomas the doubter — its own kind of double vision — looking out and up from one small brain.
We post Dennis Aubrey’s latest epistle for a number of reasons. Readers of Views from the Edge may recall that the Via Lucis photographic essay on the stones singing at Vizelay inspired a sermon on the stones singing. Here the monk who wrote the history of these Romanesque churches comes out from the shadows in a lovely tribute by Dennis, complete with pictures of PC and Dom Angelico Surchamp.
We are finally home again after two months photographing in France, Spain, and even a little bit of Italy. We drove 6,960 kilometers during that time at an arrive speed of 51 kilometers an hour, which translates to 4,344 miles and a dazzling 32 miles per hour. This demonstrates the narrowness of the country roads where we drive and the amount of time we spent in the Pyrénées and Alps. Until we hit the highway returning to Paris, the average speed was 48 kilometers per hour!
The trip ended in Vézelay at the Crispol hotel, which is almost like home to us. The Schori family is always so welcoming and the addition of the two children Max and Clémence makes it even brighter. It is always bittersweet leaving France. We love it there but we are always anxious to return home, this time to our new house amidst the Amish
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
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”.
Cain and Abel – the mythical story of the first two children of humanity – in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 4:1-16) is about something that never happened way back when but about what is always happening with us: the inexplicable violence to which humankind turns against itself. It’s about the yawning abyss of violence into which we plunge when we can’t make sense out of life or when things don’t go our way.
Yesterday’s brief post on Via Lucis Photography of Religious Architecture focuses on a capital of Cain and Abel in a Romanesque church.
Photograph by Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis Photography of Religious Architecture
Like the Genesis writer, the Medieval artist whose hand crafted the story in stone many centuries later was doing theology and anthropology. The biblical author told the story with words; the Medieval sculptor told it with non-verbal communication.
The face of Cain on Via Lucis held my attention long after I’d gone on with the day. It kept returning to mind.
Cain’s head isn’t turned toward Abel whom he is pummeling to death with his stave. He’s looking away from Cain at someone or something else, as if to say the viewer, “So, you think I’m cruel. You think I’m different. You’re looking in the mirror.”
In the biblical story God tells Cain, “sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” The Medieval sculptor’s art seems to be saying it in stone. Cain’s head is cocked, his eyes looking at us. At you. At me. And, perhaps, at God, to whose failure to rescue Abel he shifts responsibility: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The capital seems to say Cain knows he owns us and the endless history of violence in which the blood of the silent victims cries out from the ground, unless and until we – persons, groups, religions, races, cultures, nations, a species – master the sin that’s forever crouching at our door.
In a world where what passes for news are articles about the megalomaniac Donald Trump, the Kardashians, and the Jenners, we occasionally find something worth consideration.
On August 25 a funeral mass was celebrated in the Italian town of Montefortino at the chiesa della Madonna dell’Ambro. The recipient of the mass was a Capuchin friar, Padre Pietro Lavini who lived as a hermit in the Sibylline Mountains near Rubbiano Montefortino and along the Gola dell’Infernaccio, the Gorge of Hell. A thousand people attended the service of the man who died two weeks prior, on August 9, 2015.
Why did they come to this mass? What did Padre Pietro accomplish with his life as a hermit?
Padre Pietro Lavini, photo from Santuario Madonna dell’Ambro
In 1971, Padre Pietro discovered the ruins of the Eremo di Santo Leonardo, an abandoned 12th century Benedictine monastery in the wilds of the Sibyllines. All…
You’re reading a blog post. Blogging is talking. Sometimes it’s downright t-a-l-k-a-t-i-v-e. Chatty. Pointless. Silence is to be preferred to word pollution.
Two photographs in The Wood of Our Lady, Dennis Aubrey’s Via Lucis post, give reason to talk about talkativeness. Open the link and scroll down near the bottom to see two capitals: 1) two figures with their heads in their hands, weeping, and 2) what Dennis calls “The Punishment of the Talkative”.
The weeping figures of 12th century Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité strike a chord of familiarity. How many times a day does the news cause us to put our head in our hands in despair? But “the punishment of the talkative” capital evokes no such sympathy. It strikes us moderns as barbaric, the art of a Christian first-cousin of ISIL with grotesque figures excising the tongue of the talkative. Yet it served to remind the worshipers in the 12th century, as it still does in its startling way, that talkativeness is no virtue. Words are sacred. Dennis Aubrey puts it this way:
Perhaps the most famous capital represents the punishment of the talkative, presumably by excising the tongue with tongs. I don’t know if this condemns lying, calumny, or verbal abuse, or if it is a more generalized censure of chattiness or language in general. While this punishment somehow seems fitting for the slanderers who fill our public lives, I would prefer these thoughts of Voltaire, … les anges m’ont tué par leur silence. Le silence est le just chatiment des bavard. Je meurs, je suis mort. “The angels have killed me with their silence. Silence is the just punishment for the talkative. I’m dying. I’m dead.”
It was poet Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet, whose first published book (1918) was titled The Madman, who used words to say, “I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerative from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to those teachers.”
Thank you, Dennis Aubrey and P.J. McKey for bringing the teachers to light.
“In our imaginations, we listen for the distant murmurs of prayer,” wrote Dennis Aubrey in his post “In Seclusio at Thines” posted on Via Lucis Photography.
Listening for the distant murmurs immediately brought to mind a hymn composed by Anne Quigley in 1992. The tune is LONGING. The textual refrain is:
“There is a longing in our hearts, O Lord, for you to reveal yourself to us. There is a longing in our hearts for love we only find in you, O God.”
It was the recollection of the text that drew me to LONGING. I searched YouTube for possible videos for this post but found that the lightness of the tune, like so much contemporary Christian music, left me longing for “the distant murmur of prayers” that echo down the ages in the Gregorian Chants once sung in the now empty or mostly empty monasteries and churches that inspired Dennis to conclude “In Seclusio in Thines”:
“[PJ and I] … hear the echoes of sandaled footsteps in lonely churches long deprived of their monastic communities. And in our imaginations, we listen for the distant murmurs of prayer.”
I long for gravitas awakened by the beauty of silence.