Leah Silvieus on Makoto FujimuraI first encountered Van Gogh’s The Church in Auvers–sur-Oise amid a spiritual crisis the summer I turned 21. According to the Orsay Museum, the artist’s brush renders the church “a flamboyant monument on the verge of dislocating itself from the ground and from the two paths that seem to be clasping it like torrents of lava or mud.” It wasn’t the diverging paths or even the church, however, that drew my attention that day. It was the blue. That brilliant, precarious blue that fills the sky while appearing to bleed through the windows— the blue of either early morning or late twilight.
Is the church a near-crumbling skeleton standing weakly against the sky’s backdrop? Or has the sky itself somehow come to dwell within the church, filling it with a simultaneously dark and brilliant light? The longer I gazed at the painting, the less sure I was about the boundaries of inside and outside—and where I stood in relation to them. In retrospect, that encounter strikes me as a premonition. I stare at my younger self through the dark blue portal and read on that open, searching face the doubt that is to come. I see the deep hunger to be at once the blue that pools in the church’s gothic arches and the sky that reaches infinitely away from the crumbling edifice, kissing the trees and village roofs in the distance. And, perhaps most of all, I feel that yearning to keep gazing into the blue abyss, desperate for something to speak from the depths.I arrived at divinity school still haunted by the image of that skeletal church and the mysterious ways that poetry kept returning me, however, uneasily, to questions of faith. I emerged two years later still uncertain, still unsettled. It was in the waves of this restless uncertainty which I started reading Makoto Fujimura’s Art + Faith. While I did not emerge from his book with any more certain a theological framework for my poetics, it was a welcome companion on my continuing journey to understand the often-fraught relationship between my own processes of making and believing. It gave me perhaps what I needed most: hope.
I admire, and if I am honest, to some extent, envy, the way Fujimura’s theological outlook so thoroughly and beautifully complements his artistic process, whether it’s using materials like sumi ink, reconstituted oyster shells, and precious metal powders that cause him to slow down or the “devotional liturgy” of preparing the pigments and glue for painting. The somatic knowledge he has gathered through the years, he says, has led him to “understand” his works better. Later, he writes, “The deepest realm of knowledge is in Making, and, conversely, Making is the deepest integrated realm of knowing.” I don’t consider myself a devotional poet, though I have found that in writing, I seem also to be able to access a space of deeper knowing. For me, this space of knowing often seems more revelatory in hindsight. Joan Didion once famously said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” I would say: I don’t know what I think until I write it down, forget about it, and return to it later. Understanding unfolds to me recursively.
Poems never arrive to me out of some kind of intellectual ether; they are never born of grand metaphysical ideas that I manage to wrangle into a poem-shapes. Sometimes I wish that were the case; I’d much rather be writing about Truth and Beauty and Justice and God than writing about rotting fruit and dead animals and eating myself sick on Peeps as my parents dragged me to sunrise services before dawn on Easter. Yet it is only through the muck and matter of the world that I can bear to approach what lies beyond and beneath and within it. In glimpse, shadow, scent. Perhaps writing poetry is a form of witness to the ways that faith remains in me, however fraught, obscured, or confused it is. In fact, the more I try to write away from religion and Christianity specifically, the more I find myself returning to it: a wisp of scripture here, a measure of an old hymn there, the mixture of high and low vocabulary that recalls the prayers of my childhood. And it is poetry that allows me to encounter that which would be too painful to return to in any other setting.
For a few years, going to church was excruciating. When I did manage to attend a service, my skin felt strange. Sometimes it was just a tingling on the top layer. Sometimes it itched, like a scab just about to fall away, and sometimes it stung as if my nerve endings were exposed, raw, to the air. I physically ached when I took the Eucharist into my mouth. The hymns sent a sort of radiant pain throughout my body as I sang them, especially the ones I loved.Most days, it took all the strength I could muster to remain seated through the service and not run out. I thought frequently about Philip Larkin’s poem “Church Going,” in which the speaker, with an awkward reverence, observes the church’s musty trappings: the browning flowers, the “brass and stuff” at the “holy end,” and the “tense, musty, unignorable silence, / Brewed God knows how long.” I envied the speaker’s ability to make wry speculations about what is to become of churches, whether some of them will become museums while others will be left to be roamed over by rain and sheep. I envied the guy who could ask with that cool circumspection: “And what remains when disbelief has gone?” I envied this speaker who, despite his misgivings, could be “pleased to stand in silence” there. Who didn’t, like me, feel compelled to run away screaming. A man, who despite his lack of belief, could gravitate to this “serious ground” with such equanimity.
Even so, I found myself drawn to visit the churches in every city I visited. I remember sitting in a cathedral in Liverpool on a stormy day, gazing up at the stained-glass windows at the back of the sanctuary. I stood and stared because I could do little else: kneel, pray, read, think. And there, beneath the majestic but distant beauty of the soaring windows, lay a line of text in bright pink neon mounted on the back wall: “I Felt You And I Knew You Loved Me.” The soft neon glow of those words in the artist Tracey Ermin’s handwriting felt like a balm. While some might interpret the words to be saying, “I felt God and knew God loved me,” the message struck me in reverse: God felt me, and knew, despite my disbelief, my grief, my anger, that I still could love. Fujimura writes, “The somatic knowledge gained through years of making has become a way for me to ‘understand’ my own works. And through this act, I begin to feel deeply the compassion of God for my own existence, and by extension, the existence of others.” (4) I stood in the rosy light or Ermin’s words and wept. The pain I had felt for so long became a kind of tenderness for whatever it is that urges me on whatever mysteries lay beyond what I once thought I knew.
I hesitate now to say that I’ve left the church, often wrapping my quandary in tidy caveats. “I no longer practice the tradition in which I grew up,” I often say. Other times, I admit that I am an ambivalent Episcopalian, having been confirmed in the church some years ago, but I remain uneasy in my relationship to “faith.” Sometimes I think that belief has died altogether in me and it’s just a matter of time before something exposes the void, like a bottle of perfume that has slowly evaporated through the cork stopper and has become an empty vessel. Sometimes I think “belief” isn’t even really the issue; my beliefs have changed over the years, but I still keep returning to, as Larkin might say, that “tense, musty, unignorable silence.” Still, I return, listening, for what, I’m not sure. It’s as if I’m waiting to hear a song— familiar and yet somehow new— that will evoke a sort of anamnesis. It is through poetry that I try to listen for that song through the fragments of my own. To the extent I still ascribe to the idea of “faith,” it is a kind of continuous spiral, my life and everything in it whirling and swirling, tracing some of the paths that I have trod before, racing toward something unseen that is both ahead of me and behind me and everywhere around.Now, when I re-envision my first encounter with The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise, my perspective is not first-person, which is to say, staring up from the eyes of a younger self. I am instead gazing at myself from the outside as if from within the painting. I search my own face, as it searches mine. Where is that blue, is it outside or inside of the church, inside or outside of me? Am I “lost” in the darkness, or does it buoy me up, like a mysterious sea? When I was searching through images of Fujimura’s paintings, I found myself dwelling on one in particular, Charis-Kairos.
Inspired by the tears of Christ in John 11 and Georges Roualt whose painting was influenced by his early apprenticeship in a stained-glass studio, the painting, which Fujimura has created with Nihonga materials, features an array of striking colors against a dark background. From the depths of the painting emerge swaths and flecks of green, red, and gold, but it was the deep blue that refused to let me go. A blue that is, to my untrained eye, reminiscent of the hue of Van Gogh’s church. But this blue, unlike that of Van Gogh’s, is not inside or outside of any architectural structure. This blue flows in fluid play with the other colors, seems almost to move the longer one gazes at it. Juxtaposed with the gold, the blue appears to be shadow, but against the even darker background, it becomes a kind of gentle light.
There is, I think, little certainty for me on this earth. I will likely never have a cogent theological framework for my art. But I can write toward what I love in all of love’s messiness and confusion and joy and pain. Maybe after all, that is a kind of devotion. The first question people should be asked when entering a church, Fujimura believes, is “What did you make this week?” Upon finishing Art + Faith, I felt compelled toward making.
Today, it’s returning to a poem draft that has long lain dormant and also, to the slow process of creating marmalade from a bowl of leftover citrus. Making draws me on—not toward any sort of final, certain knowledge or completion, but toward desire itself, toward the anticipation of more making, and thus toward life. To the extent that faith lives in me still, Fujimura’s work has revealed to me, it is in the mystery of making itself, which glows blue with possibility as if from some distantly remembered window or sky.
Leah Silvieus is a poet, writer, and associate editor at The Marginalia Review of Books. She is a graduate of Yale University, where she studied Literature and Religion at the Institute of Sacred Music, and she is the author of four books of poetry. Her most recently collection is Arabilis (Sundress Publications, 2019), and you can find more of her work at leahsilvieus.com.