It might seem strange as we wind down our Pentecost series to speak of starting anew, but really, that is what we do each morning. The sun rises onto a brand new day. Regardless of where we are, each sunrise is a new creation. Another child or a thousand born will affect the atmosphere as will new plants being opened or closed, a natural disaster wreaking havoc from the sky or shifting geological plates beneath the earth’s surface, and the daily grind of living slightly being altered as people’s lies require change. How we adapt to those changes and view them determines whether our living is ordinary or extraordinary.
One day in 1606 a certain Mrs. Van Rijn gave birth. She was the daughter of a baker and her husband was a miller. The Netherlands at this time were religiously a bit chaotic. Most countries had a unified religion but the Netherlands…not so much, The Reformation had begun twenty years earlier and would continue for another twenty years. Catholic masses were held and often publicly but not every Sunday and often times people lost track of who, if any, had been baptized that year. Folklore and superstition prevented some from coming, soldiers marched through other churches and, for those towns with no town bell, and taverns would remain open during services resulting in an inebriated congregation that might or might not remain. There were those churches felt to be in good order, several services held daily, support from monastic properties, and the communicant number steady or rising, but for the most part, change was in the air for the Dutch.
While the British were establishing the first settlement of Jamestown, the rather prosperous Van Rijn family was establishing their young son into the family of eight children (another would be born later for a total of ten). Their young son lived with the family in the town of Leiden, known to be an artistic and intellectual center. He studied mathematics, Greek, classical literature, geography and history at the Latin School in Leiden. He then entered Leiden University where he undertook studies in science, particularly enjoying the anatomy classes in which cadavers were dissected on stage. The knowledge of anatomy he gained in the anatomy theatre was invaluable in his artistic career. This son, named Rembrandt, however, had a strong preference for painting which led him to abandon his studies after just a few months, move to Amsterdam and study under an Italian master.
With a face often compared to a loaf of bread, Rembrandt Van Rijn did multiple self-portraits and developed a style of painting known for its use of light and shadows, most likely developed from studying his own shadows of self. Coming from a family of Calvinists, Rembrandt had painted on commission for wealthy clients who sometimes did not like the drama he interjected into his works. Holland in the seventeenth century was a country of rigid rules and artists were expected to follow them. The wealthy were presented almost one-dimensionally which often complimented them. Rembrandt painted scenes of dimension, using light and its subsequent antithesis of shadow to illuminate and animate the picture. Everything had purpose in a Rembrandt painting; every inch was interesting; the parts, seemingly often unrelated, were the sum of a beautiful moment captured on canvas.
Rembrandt’s life was not all paints and success, though. His first wife suffered several unsuccessful attempts at childbirth and only one child, a son named Titus, lived past infancy. He would later die as an adult from one of the various plagues. Rembrandt’s first love and wife died, he was sued for breach of promise amid rising financial difficulties and lost the case, another mistress gave birth to a daughter and later die and Rembrandt was bankrupt, forced to sell his beloved art collection and possessions. With his son’s death one year before his own, Rembrandt still managed to paint astoundingly beautiful paintings and at his death was found to have amassed another wonderful art collection.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn once stated: “Without atmosphere, a painting is nothing.” The same might be said of life. We often focus on the dark shadows of life and forget that, in order to have the shadow, we must have experienced light at some time. Rembrandt often told his students that they should only have one master – nature. Some might interpret that to mean he lacked faith. That would be incorrect. He felt painting was the grandchild of nature and that being so, it was related to God. Rembrandt was a man of deep faith and it was that faith that saw him through the hard times of his life. Once, when a patron protested over the length of time taken to produce a painting, Rembrandt remarked: “The deepest and most lifelike emotion has been expressed and that’s the reason they have taken so long to execute.”
It is of little solace when I am going through one of life’s inevitable trials and/or personal struggle but the fact is that those times are the ones that bring our life’s deepest emotions to the surface. It is at those times where we cannot see the end or a successful resolution that our faith is most present. Howe we react to life’s surprises illustrates whether we see only darkness or realize the beauty that exists within the nuance of each situation.
Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that discusses existence and reality. Often what we perceive to be real, to exist, is not always the reality of a situation. A perceived slur or insult might actually not have been intended as such. To paraphrase Rembrandt, without context, how do we know what exists and what is real? We touched on this earlier in this series with our discussion of solipsism. Ontology seeks to answer questions by defining what is real, what exists, what is in a state of “being”. We have already discussed the philosophy of logic. Ontology delves into similar avenues, asking about the substance or essence of an object.
As a child I was fascinated by the journey to Mecca that many took. As an adult, I had a coworker who had completed his pilgrimage to Mecca. The last part of the journey is done on foot, something that might seem strange in this day and age of fast travel on and off the planet. Just as we walk through our daily living, those going to Mecca walk. As a child I thought it glorious that people undertook such a journey. For me it combined ontology with faith. Such a journey took what these people believed to be true and served as their compass for how they existed. Together this became their reality and their journey not only for going to Mecca but for going through life. Eidl al Adha celebrates a man known to Muslims as Ibrahim and to the Jewish and Christian community as Abraham. His journey of faith was just that – faith-based. He believed in the gift of his child but also in the love of his deity and in his belief being strong enough to connect him to both.
We all undertake such a pilgrimage as we live each day. While many will be pausing this weekend to give thanks, truly we should do that each and every day. Our journey is seldom traveled alone. Between family, friends, coworkers, fellow believers, we have the change to connect and give life to our beliefs. Rembrandt is said to have encouraged patience in his students: He most likely would have felt the same as Hal Borland who said “Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I understand the meaning of persistence.” Living requires both patience and persistence. The philosophy of struggle is then possibly not a question of what is but rather who are we. Rembrandt used his own struggles and lack of perceived beauty to define what beauty could be found in the light and shadows of life.
On his journey to Mecca, my friend was delayed in France. The train derailed near a little village and the townspeople took croissants and cheese to the weary travelers. My friend said that while none of the townspeople were Islamic, they gave him extra bread for the rest of his trip home. One wise old man simply stated: “We travel far but the greatest destination is that of returning to ourselves. Here is food for the remembering of your journey as you travel home to yourself.” Sometimes in the detours and the shadow we have true illumination.
When we see the shadow for its real purpose, to illuminate that which is light, then we have won the struggle and gained greater knowledge. We have been patient, persistent, and we have persevered. That is victory in living. We all travel many roads to get to where we are going. The detours life throws at us are simply part of the journey and sometimes take us to beautiful places we’d never see if we hadn’t changed our route. Each day is a celebration of the harvest we reap from living. Enjoy it, please.