|detail from THE LIBERATION OF BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP, APRIL 1945
photograph by Sgt. H. Oakes, No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit
Imperial War Museum
“Evil is everywhere. Most of all in those who feel horror when they see it, as if they themselves were not capable of it. The lesson of Belsen is simply sin. My own sin.”
The Sabbath of History, with Meditations on Holy Week by Joseph Ratzinger, is a catalog of the work and reflections of painter William Congdon (1912-1998). Congdon, an Abstract Expressionist and a convert, came to see the crucifix as his one, as the, subject.
In 1961, he observed:
“Our every experience finds it apex, its substance and ultimate meaning in the death and Resurrection of Christ, whose image is the Cross (instinct crossed by the spirit). For this reason, every subject that takes me to paint sooner or later reveals, better still becomes the Cross of Christ….Now, without looking for inspiration elsewhere, I always paint the Crucifix, because in it lies everything I have seen and lived so far until I have painted, and everything I shall ever see in the future; sum of yesterday and prophet of tomorrow: death and Resurrection.”
I reflected on this as I contemplated the recent midnight shooting rampage, by a lone gunman, at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado. I thought of the Penitential Rite. I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned…
I have sinned. Not you have sinned, not they have sinned, not I wouldn’t sin so much if everyone else acted better. This is no arcane, outdated ritual. It is a firm grounding in reality. It leads to the proper response to evil, which is not shock–the shock, given our profound spiritual hunger and our mania for guns, is that such tragedies don’t occur more–but sorrow, contrition, bewilderment, and penance. To recognize my own sin paradoxically gives me hope because if I recognize it I can maybe do something about it. I am doing something by participating in Mass, by examining my conscience, and thus am saved, by my own actions combined with grace, from despair.
Without Christ, the tension of the human condition is too much to bear. Without Christ, tripwires, live grenades, and flak gear seem like logical solutions. “The joy and the peace gained through daily Mass and Communion with Christ released me from tension,” Congdon noted. “His love, which transcended my own limited and carnal sentiments, led me to a freedom in which I was constantly renewed in body and in spirit.”
On the night of July 20, 2012, twenty-four year old James Eagan Holmes reportedly opened fire, killing twelve people and injuring fifty-eight more. He was dressed in black and wore a gas mask, a load-bearing vest, a ballistic helmet,bullet resistant leggings, a throat protector, a groin protector and tactical gloves. He wore military equipment, in other words. He was dressed for modern war.
|Crocefisso No. 90
Oil on panel
Of the above painting, Congdon wrote:
“It is all flat squashed by lava flow, but trampled as if the traffic of ‘sin’ had crossed over it for or since all eternity, until the body, what was body, became a stain. It is the road of Bombay, it is the world that continually tramples Christ under. The tar of the road became Christ who became tar in order to let himself be flattened until he flowed in the fire of love, beyond any boundary. He flows everywhere, and even more in the splinters of the ashes like a bombardment of hate. It is everything: sin without limits. And yet, under and through the ‘flow,’ his shape remains, the image that redeems.”
That movie theater must have been like a stain of tar that night: mayhem, trampled bodies, blood flowing like a river. Survivors say that also in that darkened theater, in a realm beyond space, time, and the reach of any camera, several people threw themselves on top of their companions, sparing the lives of their loved ones and laying down their own.
They weren’t “following orders” as we all like to purport to when absolving ourselves of responsibility. They weren’t dressed in flak gear or camo.
“I paint on black because painting is not representing a light that is and that’s all, but rather participating in the light that is becoming out of the darkness.”
The Dark Knight Rises. How ironic that Aurora means dawn.