A Norbertine Poem for the Sacred Heart

A Poem in honor of the Sacred Heart

The Amish Catholic

SacredHeartBlackBackground Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us. (Source).

I happened upon this wonderful poem by one Frater Simeon Charles Goodwin, O.Praem., a seminarian at St. Michael’s Abbey. It’s always a delight to find good rhyming verse with a tightly-wound meterand rich theology to boot! Throughout the text, we can detect hints of Chesterton and, in the very last couplet, the sensual, baroque Richard Crashaw. I offer it here for your enjoyment on this solemnity of the Sacred Heart.

The Sacred Heart

    by Simeon Charles Goodwin, O.Praem.

There is a heart that beat with love
When time could mark no beat.
It echoed with a triple-pulse
And surged in thunders sweet.

Too happy not to overflow
It laughed and all was made.
It sighed and angel hosts came forth
In myriad parade.

It sang the seas and skies to be,
Hummed forth the rolling…

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The “Mother Who Understands All”: Marian Vision and Apocalyptic Prophecy in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia

Abbey Tarkovsky

One would be hard put to find a filmmaker more elusive than Andrei Tarkovsky, and one would be even harder put to find one of his films to be more elusive than Nostalghia. The penultimate work of his comparatively compact oeuvre, Nostalghia reveals the auteur at his oneiric best, tantalizing the viewer with dream-images of the Jungian subconscious. As Eric David wrote, “This is the most dreamy of Tarkovsky’s films, and doubling occurs frequently… The director… told an interviewer that this film is about ‘the nostalgia of spirituality… identifying oneself with the suffering of another man… a deeper knowledge of another person.”[1] Nevertheless, as Peter Paik from Cornell states, “That Tarkovsky’s cinema brings together modernist aesthetics with such an unabashedly antimodern religious philosophy, which holds art to the standard of spiritual values, would constitute a remarkable paradox in the history of film.”[2] Indeed, producer and USC professor Ron Austin has commented, “A deeply religious man who was willing to pay a high price for his beliefs, Tarkovsky provides an inspiration for young filmmakers willing to take similar risks.”[3] While little has been written of Nostalghia and even less understood in the English-speaking world, this atmospheric masterpiece sears indelible memories upon the mind and communicates a dire warning to a Western society on the brink, making us yearn for a past that cannot be regained. In the words of Gerard Loughlin from Cambridge, “Nostalghia is as much about birth and what is to come as it is about the past and what has been lost.”[4] By closely examining Nostalghia’s Marian elements in the light of Tarkovsky’s self-concept as artistic prophet, we will be able to detect the extent to which the Mother of Jesus can be called “the Mother who understands all.”[5]

Before looking at the film itself, it will be helpful to explore how Tarkovsky understood his own vocation as an artist operating in the cinematic form. He goes to great lengths to describe his method in his book, Sculpting in Time, wherein he articulates a vision of film as an autonomous art that manipulates time as its medium. Tarkovsky quotes a fan letter that praises his film, Mirror, for hearkening back to early memories of maternity: “[T]he feeling of waiting for my mother to come back filled my entire soul… Lord, how true… we really don’t know our mother’s faces.”[6] The fact that Tarkovsky singles out this comment about motherhood from the thousands he had received is indicative of the chord he repeatedly strikes across his films, especially in the aptly-titled Nostalghia.

In fact, Tarkovsky implies that the filmmaker turns words into flesh, just as Mary gave birth to the Word made flesh. He writes, “One result is that cinema then loses something of its capacity for incarnating reality directly and by its own means, as opposed to transmuting life with the help of literature, painting or theatre.”[7] He builds on this theory even more blatantly by orienting human pursuit as a symptom of the post-lapsarian state: “From the very moment when Eve ate the apple from the tree of knowledge, mankind was doomed to strive endlessly after the truth… And so art, like science, is a means of assimilating the world, an instrument for knowing it in the course of man’s journey towards what is called ‘absolute truth.’”[8] For Tarkovsky, the source of cinematic transcendence springs forth from the celluloid’s capacity to condense the cosmos, just as Mary contained Christ in her womb: “Through the image is sustained an awareness of the infinite: the eternal within the finite, the spiritual within matter, the limitless given form.”[9] Movies employ art and science to incarnate reality and get us back to our true roots, according to the transcendent thinking of Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky proceeds to explain how cinema can only become an autonomous art when it acts as a vehicle for contemplation and transformation. In the language of spiritual motherhood again, he explicates, “Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal: that longing which draws people to art.”[10] According to Tarkovsky, the vocation of the artist is that of a self-sacrificing servant of the truth who conceives of wisdom as a gracious gift, not unlike the person of Mary. He opines:

The artist is always a servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has            been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to     make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of self can only be expressed in    sacrifice. We arc gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably,            losing all sense of our human calling. . . .[11]

Tarkovsky goes on to assert the essentially epiphanic nature of the holy inspiration behind creative conception, as juxtaposed to rationalistic epistemological modes of knowledge: “In art, as in religion, intuition is tantamount to conviction, to faith. It is a state of mind, not a way of thinking. Science is empirical, whereas the conception of images is governed by the dynamic of revelation. It’s a question of sudden flashes of illumination — like scales falling from the eyes…”[12] In fact, to be an artist is truly to be a mother: “It is a mistake to talk about the artist ‘looking for’ his subject. In fact the subject grows within him like a fruit, and begins to demand expression. It is like childbirth . . .”[13] For Tarkovsky, art is a medium between the seen and the unseen, just as Mary is.

This Marian mediation does not stop with the inventive process of the filmmaking auteur; rather, it extends to the viewing public consuming the product of the director’s craft. Tarkovsky maintains that the connection between creativity and piety is not mere metaphor, and he willingly conflates the exposure to a masterpiece with mystical experience, saying, “In the case of someone who is spiritually receptive, it is therefore possible to talk of an analogy between the impact made by a work of art and that of a purely religious experience. Art acts above all on the soul, shaping its spiritual structure.”[14] Indeed, Loughlin elucidates how “it is this duality in the act of bringing forth that is elaborated in Tarkovsky’s films.”[15] Under this definition, art is not a species of entertainment so much as nutriment requisite for the survival of the souls of those who let it gestate within them. Just as some people may be more prone than others to receiving inspiration, some people are more prone than others to recognizing inspiration, and for Tarkovsky, this is as much a matter of spiritual preparedness as anything else: “In just the same way, for a true faith in God, or even in order to feel a need for that faith, a person has to have a certain cast of soul, a particular spiritual potentiality.”[16] Arguably, no one in history exhibited this docility of spirit more than Mary towards the Holy Spirit in order to conceive her divine son, Jesus.

Given his predominantly Marian vision of the role of the artist and art, Mary becomes a focal point of the content of Tarkovsky’s art, just as she was for the painters of old. Thus, he inquires, “Who has not written about Raphael and his Sistine Madonna? …For the Virgin Mary, in the artist’s representation is an ordinary citizen, whose psychological state as reflected in the canvas has its foundation in real life: she is fearful of the fate of her son, given for people in sacrifice.”[17] Here, Tarkovsky brilliantly adduces how Mary acts as a mediatrix of reality, the loving mother who nourishes by her bosom. In fact, Tarkovsky sees the atomization of individuals – which starts with the severing from the mother-head – as the prime social evil: “Man becomes as solitary as Beelzebub. The connection between social beings is cut like the umbilical cord of a new-born infant. And consequently, society is destroyed.”[18] Loughlin picks up on this liminal thread:

But what most commentators ignore in their readings of these films is the way in   which the inchoate longings of their protagonists are embedded within the        Christian drama of the divine incarnation, of a life and death that is more than         itself, that escapes the boundaries of birth and death, but is not other than them:            birth gives rise to death and death to life.[19]

Artists warn of this supreme impending danger through prophetic rhetoric, like a solicitous mother gathering her young. Tarkovsky exclaims, “They stand on man’s path like ciphers of catastrophe, announcing… They define, hyperbolize and transform the dialectical embryo of danger threatening society… [T]hey remain incomprehensible so long as the celebrated Hegelian conflict is maturing within the womb of history.”[20] Like Mary, the artist is possessed of a telepathic inspiration to warn one’s fellow citizens of what is to come before events unfold.

But how does this apply to the film currently under consideration, Nostalghia? Well, for one thing, Tarkovsky states in explicitly Christian terms, “Cinema lives by its capacity to resurrect the same event on the screen time after time—by its very nature it is, so to speak, nostalgic.”[21] Movies are not only a mirror of the Incarnation, but also of the Resurrection, in their very timelessness. In fact, Tarkovsky declares, “The true artist always serves immortality, striving to immortalize the world and man within the world. An artist who doesn’t try to seek out absolute truth, who ignores universal goals for the sake of accidentals, can only be a time-server.”[22] Nostalgia serves, then, as an impetus to transcend one’s own place and time. This feeling Tarkovsky seeks to evoke would haunt him to his grave: “How could I have imagined as I was making Nostalgia that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen space of that film was to become my lot for the rest of my life; that from now until the end of my days I would bear the painful malady within myself?”[23] With crushing honesty, Tarkovsky confesses, “Nostalgia is now behind me. It could never have occurred to me when I started shooting that my own, all too specific, nostalgia was soon to take possession of my soul forever.”[24] This universal longing for eternity afflicts Tarkovsky on an autobiographical level, but he extends the metaphor to apply to the whole human race, as well shall see.

Nostalghia obstensibly tells the story of a man apart, estranged from his kith and kin. As much could be said of humanity taken in its entirety. Tarkovsky intended the movie to be “the portrayal of someone in a state of profound alienation from the world and himself, unable to find a balance between reality and the harmony for which he longs, in a state of nostalgia provoked not only by his remoteness from home but also by a global yearning for the wholeness of existence.”[25] Ergo, Italy comes to typify the struggle “with life itself, which never satisfies the claims made on it by the individual.”[26]

Hence, Tarkovsky echoes the yearnings of the hoi polloi, acting in accord with his belief that “every true artist – regardless of whether he wants to be or not – is a prophet.”[27] This prophecy comes as it came to the Mother of the Messiah – as a birth – but as Tarkovsky concedes, “A true spiritual birth is extraordinarily hard to achieve.”[28] In fact, he associates inspiration with the teleology, ontology, anthropology, and Christology of the beatific vision, enshrined in the womb of Mary: “Perhaps our capacity to create is evidence that we ourselves were created in the image and likeness of God?”[29] That is why all of Tarkovsky’s films, and Nostalghia in its own special way, are laden with cosmic concerns.

Now, let us examine the way in which Marian devotion shapes Tarkovsky’s apocalyptic clarion call in Nostalghia. From the opening scene, the Madonna is established as the hinging influence in the main character, Andrei Gorchakov’s, life. He refuses to follow his mistress, Eugenia, into their monastery pit-stop to visit Piero Della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto. She scolds him for not joining her, saying, “All you talk about is the Madonna, yet you refuse to visit her with me?”[30] This dichotomy in Andrei’s mind poignantly illustrates that his spiritual crisis is an inability to come to terms with his feminine origin. Hallback and Hvithamar preface the film by remarking how “the Madonna reveals a tear, a sign of the birth as both giving life and causing death as embedded in the Christian drama of the divine incarnation.”[31] Gerard Loughlin from Cambridge writes that this image of the Virgin Mary is of a “mother who seeks to make a home for God in the world… the coming of the future in the becoming of the mother, growing in her maternity as the child has grown within her, the emerging secret of the future.”[32] For her part, Eugenia says the Madonna del Parto brought her to tears upon first gaze, but Andrei’s malaise runs too deep for such a beautiful painting to unlock.

When Eugenia enters the monastery, she speaks to the sacristan. He asks her cryptically, “Are you praying for a baby, or to be spared one? If there are any casual onlookers, not supplicants, then nothing will happen. Whatever you like, whatever you need the most. But at least you should kneel down.”[33] This dialogue is tapered to a razor fine point. Eugenia is neither a wife, nor a mother, so the question cuts her to the core. It also raises the issue of her own secular ambivalence towards the cult of the Virgin and religion in general. Likewise, it addresses the paradox that faith comes most to those who believe. While demurring from genuflection on account of her untrained knees, Eugenia poses a question of her own to the sacristan: “Why do you think it’s only the women who pray so much?”[34] Such a question typically comes from a male, and thus, catches the sacristan off guard; he responds with traditional advice: ““You’re asking me? I’m only the sacristan. I’m a simple man, but a woman is meant to have children, raise them, with patience, and self-sacrifice.”[35] Like the modern lady she is, this answer is not enough for Eugenia, and she follows up with, “That’s all she’s meant for?”[36] He evades, but as she stalks out in a bit of a huff, he calls after her, ““You want to be happy. There are more important things. Wait!” This enigmatic Parthian volley from the sacristan reveals that self-fulfillment is not the most important thing in life, a counter to Eugenia’s enlightened feminism. For Tarkovsky, a world without mothers is the very definition of the apocalypse. Motherhood demands self-sacrifice, a quality of soul that Mary embodies par excellence.

What immediately follows their brusque exchange is one of the most mystical scenes in all of world cinema. A life-sized statue of Mary adorned with flowers is pulled by carriage over the cobblestones between the columns towards the painting, led by a coterie of womenfolk in the veils of virgins and widows. A new wife kneels before the traveling caravan Madonna, delivering this heartfelt hushed novena litany:

Pitiful Mother, Merciful Mother, Painful Mother, Tormented Mother, Merciful    Mother, Compassionate Mother, Anxious Mother, Blessed Mother, Loving           Mother, Bright Mother, Mortified Mother, Holy Mother, Painful Mother, Proud             Mother, Inspired Mother, Bright Mother, Mother of all Mothers, who knows the         pain of being a Mother, Mother of all mothers, who knows the joy of being a         mother, Mother of all children, who knows the joy of having a child, Mother of all            children, who knows the pain of not having a child, Mother who understands all,   help your daughter to become a mother.[37]

The juxtaposition of this spring chicken’s petition strikes a marked contrast with Eugenia’s nonchalant attitude. Then, like the painting that opens the gown of the pregnant Mary, the young woman opens up the mantle of the mobile Mary to unleash a flood of fluttering immaculate doves over the flickering vigil flames.

Like so many doves, the women flutter about, lighting candles to Mary, with the prayer that she may birth the pure souls of their children into Heaven like doves. Indeed, apocalypse means “to unveil” in Greek, so the parting of Mary’s mantle both in the two-dimensional painting and the three-dimensional statue proves significant. Loughlin points out that the interpenetrating dimensionality of the lens of the auteur alters the lens of the viewer of the film in its entirety: “The last shot of the scene is the close-up of the Madonna’s face… to produce an ‘affection-image’, abstracted from ‘all spatio-temporal co-ordinates’ …as if some event had been refracted through the crystal of the Madonna’s tear into… an indiscernible distinction between the real and the virtual.”[38] For Tarkovsky, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, and if Mary is the mother of the Savior of the World, then the future of the human race rests in the hands of the mothers who pray to her. Tarkovsky’s lens, then, constitutes nothing less than a Marian apocalyptic prophecy.

This theme runs throughout the course of the film, assuming a specifically Dominican dimension. Not lost upon Tarkovsky, the Rosary was bestowed by Mary upon Saint Dominic. First, Andrei enters a dream in which the images of Eugenia, his wife, and his mother merge with the Madonna. Indeed, Eugenia turns from the open window of their Roman villa baring her breast to him, like the Madonna Lactans, asking, “Is this all you want from me?”[39] This question sublimates the desire for sex into the desire for nurturing and protection. Indeed, Loughlin says Eugenia “is neither a virgin nor a mother, and not about to be a mother, and she has come to Gorchakov’s room because she wants to incite a response to her own desire for him. She is the Magdalene rather than the Virgin, and longing for a different kind of birth.”[40]

Later, at the healing pool of Saint Catherine in Siena, Andrei encounters the town eccentric – aptly named Domenico – who abandoned the support of his family as a math teacher to becoming a raving prophet. He tells Andrei, “Remember what He said to her: I am He who is; you are she who is not!”[41] This wisdom from the Dominican mystic and Doctor of the Church, Saint Catherine of Siena, encapsulates how Mary had to regard herself before God the Father so that the Holy Spirit could use her as the raw material to form in her womb the Son of Man, Christ Jesus. In Catholicism, Mary is called the Daughter of the Father, the Spouse of the Spirit, and the Mother of the Son, so it is fitting that the equation of love on Domenico’s Tuscan wall says 1+1=1.

Then, in the surreal final scene, Andrei leaves this life for a limbo state in which his childhood home in Russia has been transposed to the rainy ruins of Galgano. A woman’s voice (presumably Saint Catherine’s, but doubling as Mary’s, or his mother’s) asks God’s voice-over, “Why don’t you send him grace to make Yourself known to him?” whereupon God responds, “I always do, but he is only aware of it sometimes.”[42] It is Andrei’s personal eschaton. This deceptively simple dialogue (and Catherine is known for her Dialogues) reveals the constant maternal intercession in the divine economy on behalf of the whole of humanity. In fact, the end credits dedicate the film to Tarkovsky’s own mother.

This essay has covered a lot of ground in a short space. First, we have seen how Tarkovsky saw himself as a prophetic artist. Second, we have looked at how his prophetic rhetoric was grounded in the mystery of femininity and receptivity. Third, this femininity influences the Marian iconographic apocalypse that is Nostalghia, as interwoven as maternity is with one’s private nostalgia. Eugenia tries to cajole Andrei into paying homage to Mary, Domenico points the way to Saint Catherine of Siena, and Saint Catherine of Siena asks God to grace Andrei’s soul, just as Mary told Jesus, “They have no more wine.” The catharsis of Nostalghia is the longing for the eternal homeland of Heaven, achieved when we allow ourselves to be reborn in Mary so that we can become like Christ. As Tarkovsky wrote in his last will and testament, “Concerned for the interests of the many, nobody thought of his own in the sense preached by Christ: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[43] For Tarkovsky, the only way to truly learn how to love one’s neighbor is to recognize that one’s neighbor is one’s brother or sister, a fellow child of “the Mother who understands all.”[44]

 

 

Bibliography

Austin, Ron. “The Age of Miracles: Andrei Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski.” In In             a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts, 60-68. Grand Rapids: William           Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

David, Eric. “The Man Who Saw the Angel.” Christianity Today, July 24, 2007.    Accessed May 13, 2017. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/julyweb-            only/foftarkovsky.html.

Hallback, Geert and Annika Hvithamar. Introduction to Recent Releases: The Bible in        Contemporary Cinema, 1-11. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008.

Loughlin, Gerard. “The Madonna’s Tear: Biblical Images in the Films of Andrei     Tarkovsky.” In Recent Releases: The Bible in Contemporary Cinema, edited by         Geert Hallback and Annika Hvithamar, 81-92. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press,   2008.

Paik, Peter Y. “Tarkovsky’s Apocalypse and the Image of Time.” Religion and the Arts 3,             no. 1 (1999): 41-63.

Tarkovsky, Andrey. Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art.             Translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Tarkovsky, Andrei. Nostalghia. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1983.

Tarkovsky, Andrei. “Nostalghia (1983): Opening Scene.” Filmed [1982]. YouTube            video, 10:46. Posted [May 4, 2015].             https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVAbnxpFMns.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Eric David, “The Man Who Saw the Angel,” Christianity Today, July 24, 2007.

[2] Peter Y. Paik, “Tarkovsky’s Apocalypse and the Image of Time,” Religion and the Arts, no. 1 (1999): 49.

[3] Ron Austin, “The Age of Miracles: Andrei Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieslowski,” in In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 64.

 

[4] Gerard Loughlin, “The Madonna’s Tear: Biblical Images in the Films of Andrei Tarkovsky,” in Recent Releases: The Bible in Contemporary Cinema, ed. Geert Hallback and Annika Hvithamar (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008), 83.

[5] Tarkovsky, Andrei. “Nostalghia (1983): Opening Scene.” Filmed [1982]. YouTube video, 10:46. Posted [May 4, 2015]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xVAbnxpFMns.

[6] Andrey Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art, trans. by Kitty Hunter-Blair (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986), 10.

[7] Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 22.

[8] Ibid, 36-37.

[9] Ibid, 37.

[10] Ibid, 38.

[11] Ibid, 38.

[12] Ibid, 41.

[13] Ibid, 43.

[14] Ibid, 41.

[15] Loughlin, “The Madonna’s Tear,” 91.

[16] Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 42.

[17] Ibid, 48.

[18] Ibid, 53.

[19] Loughlin, “The Madonna’s Tear,” 91.

[20] Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 53.

[21] Ibid, 140.

[22] Ibid, 168.

[23] Ibid, 202.

[24] Ibid, 216.

[25] Ibid, 204.

[26] Ibid, 204.

[27] Ibid, 221.

[28] Ibid, 232.

[29] Ibid, 242.

[30] Tarkovsky, Andrei. Nostalghia. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1983.

[31] Hallback, Geert and Annika Hvithamar, introduction to Recent Releases: The Bible in Contemporary Cinema (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2008), 10.

[32] Gerard Loughlin, “The Madonna’s Tear,” 83-85.

[33] Tarkovsky, Andrei. Nostalghia. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1983.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Loughlin, “The Madonna’s Tear,” 89.

[39] Tarkovsky, Andrei. Nostalghia. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1983.

[40] Loughlin, “The Madonna’s Tear,” 83.

[41] Tarkovsky, Andrei. Nostalghia. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1983.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time, 232.

[44] Tarkovsky, Andrei. Nostalghia. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1983.

The Prince of the Heavenly Host

Saint Michael the Archangel in Paris

Saint Michael the Archangel, pray for us!

‪Thrust the Devil in the pit of Hell!

‪Free us from the bonds of fleshly lust!

‪May we not follow down where Satan fell!

‪You are our seraphic psychopomp,

‪A spirit warring for Our Lord, the Christ!

‪His glory burns away demonic pomp –

‪Pray that we may never be enticed!

‪You are the Prince of the Heavenly Host!

‪You dominate over infernal powers!

‪May we be filled up with the Holy Ghost!

‪May we invoke you in all holy hours!

‪O patron, purge us of the world’s dross,

‪That we may never taste eternal loss.